Embarking on the next phase of my life after working as a full-time Civil and Transportation Engineer in the San Francisco for 30 years. My wife and I will be following our shared passions for world travel, culture, and sustainable transport.
The diversity of Sri Lanka blew us away in our second week, as we headed further east and up to the highlands.
Based in the small town of Tissamahama , we choose to do two separate safaris to Yala and Bundala National Parks. And although the parks are relatively close to each other, our experiences were vastly different.
Yala is the most popular park and the one nearly every one visits. We chose the “half day” morning safari which leaves at 5 am and ends by noon. The drive in the open sided safari truck in the dark at dawn was refreshing and we saw an elephant and a jungle cat (rare to spot!) before we even got to the park entrance. After admission fees are paid, the Jeeps then queue up outside the gate until the opening bell at 6:15am. Then a somewhat crazy race ensues as 50-100 jeeps head into the park and pan out in Sector 1, one of the areas of Yala that allows visitation and borders the beautiful coast.
The scenery is arguably more dramatic in Yala with massive rock outcrops and a large river. And Yala has Leopards and sloth bears, which are not usually found in Bundala. But everybody wants to see a Leopard. After seeing a leopard in India, we weren’t as crazed to see one here, but did catch a glimpse over a somewhat comical scrum of gridlocked jeeps on a small side road (all roads are dirt and rough). As the morning pressed on, our guide was as able to find a bit more solitude as we viewed elephants and a vast array of bird life.
On our second day we opted for an afternoon tour of the smaller Bundala NP. It’s also along the coast but characterized by large brackish lagoons and coastal forest and scrub.
We actually enjoyed the intimacy of Bundala and we had a much better focus on amazing bird species from a fantastic park guide who has worked there for 20 years. And to answer the title question about elephants, “maybe, unless they are in Musth (male heat) when they can be aggressive and grumpy”
So here’s the other revelation of our time in India and Sri Lanka….I think I’m becoming a birder. It started with the enthusiasm of the birders we met in the Western Ghats, but has been building as I read and learn more, as well as using the fantastic apps by the Cornell Lab of Orinthology, Merlin and EBird
We will certainly be picking up binoculars or a monocular in Japan for sure. And birding and bike touring are a natural combination. This can now be added to the list of “things I never had time or patience for while working”….though most people had me pegged for the model train basement type-;)
We then took a car transfer up to Ella and the southern hill country of Sri Lanka, And although we were only at about 3,500 feet, we immediately appreciated the slightly cooler temps.
One of our challenges of independent travel and a focus on the trains is the need to be based in more touristed towns with services and connections. Some people choose to rent a car here and that does give you a lot more flexibility, but as we know, it also ties you down in other ways and makes working in the epic train opportunities here difficult. So our strategy is to be based in a convenient place with tourist services, but then try to do different things than the norm, usually via walks and treks.
Luckily there is a nascent long distance hiking trail in development across the hill country and mountains. The 300km, 22 stage “Pekoe Trail” has been initially mapped and stages are now available on many trail apps, including AllTrails and Wikiloc.
So in Ella, instead of being driven around in a van or tuktuk all day to see 10 random things, we walked two stages of the Pekoe Trail from Ella. They were both great and although touch a few very popular tourist sites in places (by design) we mostly had the trail 100% to ourselves.
The trail will be a brilliant addition to tourism options in Sri Lanka, and spread the positive tourist impacts out along many more communities and people than the current concentration on tourist hot spots. Interestingly it’s sponsored partially by a grant from the EU, which has certainly seen the success of long distance trails in Europe, such as all the Camino routes in Spain and Portugal.
We look forward to tracking the progress of the trail as dedication and signage is scheduled to be installed later this year. The lodge we stayed in Ella didn’t seem to know about it, or diminished it a bit as I think it’s seen as a bit of an existential threat to the tourism status quo, which is tour vans and tuktuks taking people around to the same sights and based in one of ten inland tourist hotspots. The coast is a separate beast and has hundreds of kilometers of beaches and towns, but mostly people focused on a tropical beach holiday.
We are continuing our journey in Sri Lanka, and are still awed by the universal friendliness of the people. We’ve had wonderful encounters with locals and some interesting conversations about the current challenges here. And there are still major economic hardships. Not enough jobs and opportunities for talented and motivated people. Not enough food for many who have slipped back into poverty.
And it’s been hard not to support EVERYONE we meet as they all have needs and a family to feed (and will often mention this), but we do what we can to be generous on our way. The boom times of tourism here from 2009-2019 were clearly different, but there is a bit of new optimism that things are finally getting better.
We sure hope so, but will also be voting for politicians back in the US that support more generous and compassionate immigration policies. We have an excess of space and opportunities to share still.
India was incredible. It’s so overwhelming in its vastness, yet can be so friendly at a smaller scale.
There is nowhere we have experienced a broader range of moods. The many highs are unforgettably etched in your brain, just next to the pungent lows.
And in our fourth week of a big circuit of southern India, it continued to surprise us. It’s surprising that it works at all. It’s a global blessing that it’s all relatively peaceful, given the religious, cultural, and regional diversity. Let’s really hope this does not change.
It’s also fascinating to see how people have adapted to cope with it’s challenges. Vagueness and bureaucracy are endemic and seem to be the enemy of progress. Yet the dynamic new tech and innovation sectors are amazingly efficient. Two worlds.
One surprise of this visit to me is the fact that so much of the old world and customs still dominate life outside the metro areas. I thought things would have changed a bit more. Municipal services still don’t seem to be strong. Public spaces are not cherished and although cleanliness in the home is paramount, keeping common spaces trash free is still a difficult thing to experience for people used to more proper sanitation (and much more consumption per capita, but just better hidden!).
But as much as I have been intoxicated by the new metros, sights, sounds, and conversations with so many kind and interesting people, I was equally aghast at the state of road transport. It’s hostile, aggressive, dangerous, and classist. The National highways are death traps and have 30% of fatalities despite only representing 2% of the road system. Our last week really highlighted this as we had 3 road transfers in a row to navigate the center and east coasts of Tamil Nadu. In some cases, buses were an option (with additional transfers on each end), but the buses are also dangerous.
So my advice to future travelers is to avoid the roads as much as possible…book your trains early and plan your trip around them. When you do need a car transfer, only do it by daylight and make sure the car is decent and has working seat belts. I can see why people choose a nice driver or transfer van tour option. Of course you can ask your driver to drive slower or take fewer passing risks, but this can tough to overcome with language barriers and the endemic mania that are the norm of Indian roads.
And to be honest, a majority of people in cars were just plain mean, and generally have low respect for pedestrians. It was pretty horrible and stressful, and degraded the quality of life in places such as Ooty. It is unhealthy to body and mind. And as Cheryl likes to note, it has the biggest impact on women, who seem to be the majority of pedestrians walking on roads to conduct their daily duties…. and there are many duties.
It’s a tragedy of the commons. We did see a few feeble attempts to influence behavior with messaging, but unless a massive and systemic change is made, it may only get worse as more cars are added to the mix.
But we are so glad to have made the journey back to India. it’s added to our understanding of its challenges and boosted our appreciation again of the daily struggles of so many. It gives us both hope and fear for two disparate futures.
Thanks to all those who shared their kindness along the way, and we wish you all the best. Keep in touch.
So one thing we are noticing as we travel through parts of Southern India is the clear growth of domestic tourism since our last visit: It’s been refreshing to stay places and not be surrounded solely by European or other “western” tourists, as this makes the travel experience a bit more rewarding.
The rising middle class of India is over 200 million strong and growing, and they are influencing travel and tourism here more than ever. Foreign visits are still below 2019 levels, but domestic tourism and travel continues to grow substantially. So does India really need (or want) foreign visitors? And what happened to many of the business that catered mostly to foreign tourists?
The short answer is that many of them closed and have not reopened. In the Tamil Nadu hill station of Ooty, many of the pre-Covid travelers cafes and restaurants listed in guidebooks and online had closed. And service at the ones that survived suffered serious interruptions. But fret not weary traveller, as they are being replaced by new trendy cafes, restaurants, and other businesses that a western traveller will enjoy, but will need to learn to share with local (and much hipper) Indians.
The modern growth and poverty reduction in India over the past 16 years is a great thing, and classic traveller towns of Asia may be legendary and great fun to meet other travelers, but they are always a curated experience. Plus, modern Indian cities and the rise of tech and related services are just as important as understanding the symbolism of old temples IMO. And modern India is going to have a big influence on the world over the next century with one of the fastest growing economies and large population growth.
And of course you have always been able to meet “real Indians” at lower cost lodging, but often there are too extreme differences in socio-economic factors to have a relatable conversation based on common frames of references. And English is often limited to middle and upper classes or people in the tourism trade. Sure, we cherish our interactions with any local, no matter how brief or limited, but to us, it is also equally fascinating to learn about the lives of other other educated professionals in a very dynamic place.
Or maybe you are lucky enough to have close contacts, business ties, or even family here….that is always the best experience, and you are probably meeting lots of people. But one resounding theme in the South has been how nice everyone is, especially away from the main tourist areas.
So after 4 nights in Mysore, we finally headed to more remote areas near Masinagudi by hired driver/taxi. There are no train options and the vague bus info I could find involved 2 transfers. And with Cheryl still unable to carry her pack and 35c heat and sun… you get the idea. Car transfers here are affordable and often take out massive stress of uncertain buses and rickshaw connections. We’ve learned not to torture ourselves excessively in our second visit to India. It turns out this car trip included a route through the Mudumalai Tiger reserve and was delightful, as we saw two wild elephants up the hill from the car as we passed through beautiful landscape. (FYI- It was about INR5,500 or $US65 for a 2 1/2 hour trip with coffee/tea/bathroom stop…maybe 4,000 rupees if you shop around but we let our hotel arrange and the little sedan and driver was nice.)
We stayed 3 days at the “Jungle Hut” next to the Mudumalai Reserve, which is part of 4 national parks and reserves which make up the Wester Ghat Mountains biosphere. It’s a UNESCO global diversity hotspot (one of 36) so protecting the endangered and endemic species is a priority. We loved the Jungle Hut, with its great guides, food, vibe, and staff engagement.
It also appeared that the area was being managed well, with a balance of needed tourism dollars and protection of the environment. Perhaps a little more regulation of safari jeeps outside the reserve is needed, but it seemed many area residents are directly involved in the local reserves, or at least reap some of the benefits of money coming from tourism into the their villages. (There are 8 smaller villages that are part of Masinagudi). India has done a good job expanding and managing natural reserves and animal counts are increasing for tigers, elephants, leopards, panthers, bears, and other large fauna. But it’s not easy. We also saw serious anti-poaching patrols.
So we sadly left the Jungle Hut once again by car transfer to Ooty,, “Queen of the Hill Stations”. But as we made our way up the 36 marked hairpin curves to Ooty, all I could think was wow, what an amazing Tour de France stage this would make -:).
Oh, but the logistics! And logistics are what often takes a toll on independent travelers in India. Unless you go the 5 star tour route, doing just about anything in India always seems to come with unexpected challenges or complications. (And a 5 star tour does not buy you safe roadways or clean air outside your AC cocoon.)
Being fiercely independent travelers, we love to find our own way, but recognize sometimes a guide or car transport is needed. But in most cases, all could be done by independent travelers if there was more information provided. Traveling in almost any other country has been easier, including recently in Morocco and Turkey (especially Turkey…a joy), as interactions are more straightforward. There are cultural differences that are hard to adapt to, even after weeks or months here. The local tourists do much better I suspect, as there is more comfort with the systems, customs, and still strict class structure.
So as Cheryl likes to say repeatedly when I complain about a challenge here, “Square peg, round hole!” We are clearly more comfortable with predictable mass transit, cycling, and walking. And I am always torn about guides, as appreciate guide roles provide jobs, but so many times, guides in museums or other tourist sights are just a replacement for any form of curation, or often just repeat what you read on Wikipedia. Wildlife guides are essential and a huge benefit.
But in my naive American perspective, it seems that if India made things easier for independent tourists, more would visit, and spend even more money. Right now, many places are just too challenging to deal with to bother with, linger, or explore further.
One positive change from 2006 is the introductions of E-visas, which has increased tourism visits significantly. But that’s only the first step, as there was still a baffling amount of forms to fly to and enter India. We first submitted all our personal and trip information to get a Visa, including photographs. Next was the mandatory info on the airline app, yet we still got caught out at check-in missing the Air Suvidha form, which was added in January for entry from “high risk” countries. We knew (and somewhat understand) the added PCR tests due to China”s surge in cases, but can’t imagine any scenario in all of India where this form will prevent one case of COVID post entry. Most governments have realized the futility of such measures when COVID is all about in country, but it shows action for politicians.
So we have detailed e-visa with photo, the Air Suvida form, and all other COVID docs, and then get to immigration and are directed to a confusing side desk for E-visas….but first, fill out another manual form with the same info. The few (half dozen) foreign Nationals were all confused and then trying to share the agents one pen and understand why a fourth form was needed….then to immigration desk for questioning….where we were going, my job, was I young to be retired? And immigration officers seemed to be baffled by a tourist listing a hotel as address in India. We’re tourists! Cheryl somehow got less of a rigamorale. Maybe it was the purple hair. Maybe, it seemed, he was trying to be a bit playful and curious, but after all the forms, I wasn’t really in joking mood. Plus, you NEVER joke in immigration or customs unless prompted!
Then to customs ( no one there…walked through?). We then managed to get lucky and find the lone ATM inside arrivals that had cash. (Runs out later in the day apparently, so then you are forced to change cash at poor rates) And then to the one SIM card booth where were lucky to be first in line and getting two Vodaphone SIMs which took about 20-25 minutes, including new digital photos. The time was not the staff’s fault, as they had to enter endless info to register us, as apparently SIM cards are tightly controlled here out of security concerns. The SIM cards work fine and were very reasonable cost 1000INR for 28 days with 1.5GB/day plus bonus on weekends. But note that Airtel has a better network, but getting SIMs outside the airport can have additional challenges.
Next we decided to use the official Airport cabs….which, oh boy, had no one waiting (red flag!). We got in and asked about the meter….as I then noticed the official one seemed to be upside down on the floor and he showed me his phone which had a “meter”. Ughh….and no seatbelts. Ok, but at least he was fairly mellow, preferring to straddle two lanes on the highway most of the way to our modest hotel in Indiranagar. The fare was 2100 INR….more than double than fares listed by Ola or Uber, which explains the lack of line and what all the locals were doing waiting outside the terminal. Welcome to India. But the good news is that a metro is being built to the airport! (Which you know we will take.)
I realize to most natives and past visitors to India it feels as if I’m a man waving fist at seagull. Futile. But India could attract more tourists if some things were more user friendly. The above airport process in Taiwan took 1/4 the time and 5% the stress.
Another issue is the train reservation system for the national railway, IRCTC, can be figured out, but it takes a LOT of patience and working out the payment system for international credit cards. The website (App promised for years…) is twitchy with overlays, ads, videos, and pop up windows. Cmon India, this is your national railway…a more streamlined booking platform and App similar to most modern railways and airlines would be great.
As Cheryl noted in our last post, there are plans to modernize and expand railway service, but will it be fast enough to keep up with the explosion of car ownership and discount air travel. These modes are definitely now the preferred way of travel for the middle and upper classes. But at a huge cost to the environment. The car ownership growth here is a time bomb, and already crippling cities, big and small, as well as killing 160,000 people a year.
And although intercity buses fill a big transport need, most run at night only, and the many decent booking apps don’t take foreign credit cards…..still trying to crack this travel challenge with Google/Amazon Pay or PayPal. But you can generally find something the day before or last minute, but it may not be your first choice for time or comfort. But we are lucky, as we can always buy ourselves out of most situations, even if it means an expensive car hire to the next destination. Flying is often an option too, but we have vowed not to fly in country as much as possible.
So if you are still reading this rant, please know that I think India is a truly unique and fascinating place and we are savoring all the experiences as we head through Kerala now. A cultural and social anthropologists dream. A political and global force. An incredible mix of hundreds of cultures and languages that somehow keeps it together as the worlds largest democracy.
But you don’t make it easy India, and maybe that’s what it’s all about. Happy travels!
This is our fourth visit to Bangkok. Bangkok is unique, fluid, and always changing. And we always look forward to further exploration of this vast and fascinating city, built over the swamp and floodplains of the Chao Phrayo River.
A lot has changed over 17 years since our first visit. There are new green spaces, MRT and SkyTrain extensions, and dozens (hundreds?!) of new malls and high rise buildings. But in many ways it hasn’t changed, including frenetic streetlife, food, and more traditional low rise and open living in most neighborhoods.
But the pace of change in urban mobility hasn’t happened as fast as you would expect, or in pace with other big Asian and global cities. And unhealthy air, noise, and traffic are still major drawbacks to daily life. Some of this is due to challenging and unstable governance, some due to a slowing of the economy and the pandemic, but at its core, Bangkok is fighting a legacy of car and scooter dependence that has been coddled, accommodated, and supported by street expansion and lots of (mostly free) parking at every destination.
Of course, the addition of more highways and toll roads has helped overall capacity, and apparently even the continuous congestion and traffic jams of 2023 pale in comparison to the true chaos of the 1980s and 90s before road expansion and rail transit began.
But it’s a catch up game, as the first SkyTrain (metro) didn’t open until 1999. Luckily, major development has been concentrated along transit corridors. And there are now 3 BTS SkyTrain lines with 62 stations and 2 MRT lines with 46 Stations. The buses seem to be a missed opportunity as they have little or no dedicated space and suffer in the congestion. These old buses belch a scary amount of diesel along the roadways into air often in the 150-200 (very unhealthy) AQI levels.
There is also an elevated driverless train line to the somewhat distant Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport that opened in 2010. These have all helped to reduce car dependence and expanded the reach of transit. But overall, the system is not extremely user friendly as the BTS, MRT, and Airport Trains are operated by separate companies, so ticketing is still separate and connections a bit clunky and congested. But it all works and much of the service is good. We just carried two fare cards and swapped out for SkyTrain to MRT trips, and bought an electronic single-fare token for our trip from the Airport.
We spent a week here in 2007 staying with two different expat friends. Outside of India, Bangkok was our first big Asian city experience. It was a globalization boom time. (And possibly peak?) We were mesmerized by the chaos and modernity of the city, then one of the fastest developing in the world outside of China.
At that time, we explored the country for 6 weeks, so saw the northern mountain regions, northeast rural and Mekong, and the southern peninsulas and fabulous islands. Like most western travelers to Thailand, we loved it. We stopped over here for 3 days in 2014 and 2017 as part of travels onward in Asia. Both follow up visits were enjoyable as we stayed in two different neighborhoods, but always close to a MRT or Skytrain station.
So fast forward to January 2023….two coups, military leadership, a new King, global slowdown, and three years of a pandemic devastating the tourist economy which accounted for over 20% of the GDP in 2019. It’s still the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, but the stagnation is obvious and frustrating for the hard working and constantly striving lower and middle classes.
Its growth and development is still chugging along, but it does feel like it the benefits of mega projects, skyscrapers, and industry are not reaching the masses. The unfortunate decision in the late 80s to embark on a massive roadway expansion in the city instead of transit set the patterns that feel intractable in today’s Bangkok.
On the bright side, a new central train station has been opened in northern Bangkok, that the government hopes to use as a hub of a vastly expanded rail network, with a specific goal for tourist service. Good plans if they can find the will and money to execute the plan.
Thailand still seems to need more tourist (and other?) taxes to pay for infrastructure. One of the highly touristed (and beautiful) islands Koh Tao has instituted an arrival tax for each tourist to help pay for much needed sanitation and environmental improvements, but it’s a modest fee (<$1), so progress will be slow. Thailand itself is also proposing an international arrivals tax of 300 Baht (about $10) starting in June, and monies are designated for accident services and development assistance. It still seems light based on the impact tourists have on the infrastructure. We all love Thailand, so we should help pay to make it more sustainable.
But the most obvious deficiency in Bangkok’s transport network is walking and cycling. It’s shockingly disconnected. The artery and capillary (Soi) network is disconnected by design and development legacy, as well as many routes being cut off by the remaining canals. But dead end streets are the nicest to live on and bring quiet from the chaos, so the challenge is to expand walking and cycling networks without inducing car and scooter traffic. It can work with some clever bollards, gates, or chicanes…and maybe some scooter traffic is acceptable as this would shorten trips for many from the arteries, as a grid is established.
So for us, this is a livability failure. The lack of connectivity has been recognized by some studies (See UDDC Goodwalk pilot plan) and a few small steps have been taken recently to improve pedestrian mobility, such as new ladder crosswalks and a corresponding law increasing fine for motorists violating ped ROW in them.
It is a bit encouraging, but pedestrians are still mostly a sub-species clinging to gutters, dodging scooters, and navigating a pretty hostile, polluted, and unpleasant streetscape on the main arteries. On hot and polluted days, which are many, it makes even the most ardent walker retreat to an alternate means. Tree planting and protection does seem to be coming with new development, which helps everything, heat, air, and sun protection for walkers.
But indeed this a just a drop of perspective from a non-resident Farang, and I don’t begin to pretend to understand the complexities of life and culture here. But the local officials and planners do. And many are working hard to make the long vision changes to lifestyle and infrastructure that will lead to a healthier environment and people.
Bangkok is a complex ecosystem of 11 million people, and finding the balance of economic growth and opportunity versus health, pollution, and mental health is tough. But as Asia often looks forward, I’m hopeful that next time we visit bangkok we’ll see more positive changes. Already they are considering a congestion charge, expanding the MRT, and modifying laws to improve pedestrian life. Just don’t move too many of the food carts out of the way….we can walk around!
I love the rush and excitement of flying into a new place. And since we transferred through Tokyo on ANA, we flew into the closer Songshan city airport (TSA) and had a window seat on a long double loop around the dramatic hills and skyscrapers of Taipei….a free aerial tour of the city where we would spend our next week!
Note that most longer flights go out of the much larger and more distant Taoyuan International Airport (TPE). But both have good rail connections right to the center, so no worries if you fly into or out of TPE.
Taipei is a world class city that just doesn’t rise to the top of most (western) tourists lists. But we think the Portuguese nailed it with the name “Formosa”, as it is a beautiful, prosperous, and free place.
It’s certainly a place that is receiving more attention in the global news due to the complex geo-politics associated with its status and ultra strategic location in the South China Sea. We enjoyed learning so much more about the history of Taiwan. It has left a unique legacy on the psyche of the country.
After the Qing Dynasty lost the Sino-Japanese War in 1895, they ceded Taiwan and the Japanese colonized and controlled Taiwan for over 50 years. When their occupation finally ended after World War II. a dictatorship initially led by Chiang Kai-Shek ruled for the next 40 years under the KMT party, with strict repression of free speech, detentions, and killings known as the “White Terror”.
By the late 80’s, a slow transition to a more open and democratic Taiwan started, and after the election of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2016, it has solidified its place as a liberal and forward looking democracy.
They were the first Asian state to legalize gay marriage in 2019 and have 42%+ representation of women in the parliament as well as a female president. The Scandinavia of Asia?! Almost, but there is still a huge gender wage gap and other legacy issues of a male dominated business world.
However, we could feel the positive energy and openness in Taipei, although all within a society that still values social stability and conformity. It’s an interesting mix but definitely a positive one to experience, even as an outsider.
Here’s the Top 10 reasons we loved our week in Taipei and why you might too:
1. The Food – you can see Cheryl’s last two posts for lots of details on the food scene…great food everywhere, and the amazing and exciting night markets.
2. Unique culture – fun and quirky with a rich history influenced by indigenous, Han Chinese, Japanese, and western culture. There is also a strong fascination with Korean pop culture and clothing. It’s not quite like anywhere else, it’s Taiwan.
3. Efficiency AND Kindness – This is a neat and orderly city…people follow the rules and you will enjoy yourself more if you do too. Or at least make an effort. It’s an easy, extremely collaborative society, and everyone has built in empathy and spacial radar systems. You’ll never bump into someone or have them cut or push too much, even in crowds…it’s infectious and relaxing once you embrace the system.
4. The MRT! – a comprehensive and modern system that carries 2 Million passengers a day. Buy a EasyCard (IC Card) at either airport station for 100 NTD (New Taiwanese $, or about $3 US), load some fare and then tap in and out like the locals for 50c to $1 a trip. We had the airport station agent add 300 to each to start, so paid 800 NTD. If you get a funny beep or issue with your card, there is always a helpful staff person nearby.
There are also real time predictions at all MRT and most bus stops, so don’t be intimidated to use buses as well. Big numbers on the front…tap on and off with your IC card when you ride at the front or back doors. So easy.
5. Bathrooms – Seriously, Taiwan is the most bathroomed place on the planet (interested to hear about others!?). Every station has one (or two), public parks, museums, attractions, malls, night markets, parking garages, busy neighborhoods….you get the idea. And all free and clean, which really does reduce travel stress and the need to go into “camel mode” walking about like in some counties.
6. Greenery – Parks, long greenways (140km of bike paths!), and lush hills and mountains make for a pleasant backdrop, plus potted street plants liven up even the drabbest streets.
7. Clean air – not perfect but good for such a large city due to great public transit, fairly clean vehicles, frequent coastal and island breezes, and the greenery noted above.
8. Safety – Traffic is pretty organized and street crime seems virtually non existent. One of our only social gaffs was inadvertently moving a women’s notepad/binder/IPad? from a back garden of a coffee shop…we thought it belonged to the shop, and she came out surprised to see us in her seat…we offered to move, but she refused and headed to another spot upstairs. Oops.
9. Hiking and cycling culture – a great proportion of the world’s quality bicycles are made here (not to mention 90% of the worlds fast semiconductors), and they actually push cycle touring as a key component of their tourist advertising. On this first “winter” visit, we only grazed the endless mountain and forest trails that crisscross the spine of Taiwan… with many accessible by public transit.
10. Mixing with the locals – not many western tourists makes for a more exotic feel. And at least some English in most places makes interactions more rewarding. We’ve discovered this cool Asian capital, right-:)
Maybe you’ve been here and are nodding along, but if not, consider at least a stopover in Taipei on your next travels to Asia, or better yet, spend a few weeks or a month traveling around the whole island. Rail circles the island and the more developed west coast has a high speed rail network that takes you all the way south in about 2 hours.
The more you learn about the people, history and culture, the more you will understand the how complex the geo-political conundrum really is. Our hope is strong for a positive future for Taiwan and we definitely plan to come back soon to explore by bicycle.
Happy New Year! We’re just winding down our second house sit in Seattle and after almost 2 weeks, we’ve learned a lot about life during winter in Puget Sound. As expected, it is wetter, colder, and darker than the SF Bay Area winter. No real surprise there.
But “living” in two different untouristed residential neighborhoods has allowed us the opportunity to experience a bit more realistic perspective. We’ve walked to the parks, grocery stores, and restaurants that we might use if we lived here. We have to decide to walk, take a bus, or drive as yes, life in most of Seattle would be fairly limited without a car for some trips ( We’d also have bikes of course).
People are very laid back compared to SF and friendly if you engage them, but sidewalk or trail greetings are not a given. Just all a bit reserved here. Nordic roots maybe play a part in this. Or maybe it’s the fact that the area draws more introverts with the weather and open space of the Northwest. Where can I hide in the wet woods? Seattle for sure.
Seattle has been cool and intriguing to the nation for years, but especially since the rise of grunge and SubPop records in the late 80’s and early 90’s. We’ve been here many times, including multiple bike tours and I’ve been listening to the amazing KEXP for years on the web.
We always enjoy it, but how would it be in the dead of winter? Well, we still love it. The magnificent firs, cedars, and other evergreens are in frequent view and are so soothing along with the occasional spectacular Mountain View’s. But it IS cold and damp, and we’ve only had two doses of sunshine in two weeks. Other than an unusual ice storm our first few days, the rain has always been on and off.
But like the locals, it’s really not an issue if you have decent gear or just ignore it and run or walk in the rain. It’s just water Californians, don’t freak out like a cat in a bathtub! We haven’t freaked out.
So we’ve surmised that cozy and warm housing is a key to happiness here as there is no fallback to walk in regenerative sunshine in winter, like SF. Oh, and Vitamin D supplements left over from our last dark winter in the UK are just what the doctor ordered. And we’d also need to scale back our pace a bit…which is good.
Another place we’ve been intrigued about, mostly from afar, is the City of Bellingham which is two counties and about 90 miles north of Seattle. Close, but a very separate place. We bike toured through the area during late summer many years ago and found it beautiful and it felt a bit undiscovered. It’s no longer undiscovered by any means after articles in the New York Times and appearances on endless “best places to retire” lists.
We only had two brief days to explore the city and environs but it is a very nice place. Funky but somewhat vibrant downtown, hills, views, forest, lakes, mountains and many parks. It’s also only about an hour by car to Vancouver, Canada, although the border crossing can slow things down.
Could we live here? Sure, it’s very cool. But at this point in our lives, we still crave a bit more urban density, diversity, and a variety of neighborhoods to explore. Seattle has this AND access to the outdoors, although maybe not as close or as as quickly to remote wilderness as Bellingham.
So the decision to live somewhere else for awhile is not easy for us and is not easy when you’ve been in the blissful bubble of San Francisco, which is so eminently walkable, very bikeable, and still full of creative people, variable cultures, and amazing food. We always compare places to these high bars.
But SF has its problems, especially affordability, exacerbated by a lack of new housing and stagnant neighborhood planning. The financial disparities are tough and strain everything. Seattle has similar issues, but has more of a relief valve in buildable area and housing options. But we also have deep roots and hundreds of friends and family in the Bay Area. We would miss them but are convinced we could find some good friends here too…we just might need to start the conversation!
But no need to fret about where we land yet as we have decided to wander the globe for another year. We stayed in 130 different places in 2022….yup, that is a lot, so settling down somewhere now would be a bit like hitting a travel brick wall at 100mph. Other stats for 2022 FYI: 45 days of house sitting (9 cats, 2 horses, 2 bunnies), 61 days in apartments, 146 days in hotels (apart hotels, B&Bs, Inns, and pensions), 3 nights on transport(planes, trains, and a ferry), and finally 110 days with friends and family (thank you all-:). Whew!
So tomorrow we meander a few days back to the Bay Area for final prep and friend catch up before heading on our next big adventure in Asia…first stop, Taiwan. So excited!
Happy New Year and Happy Travels. Maybe we’ll see you out there!
It’s hard to believe that we’ve been back in the US for almost two months, and apologies for the month gap in our blog, a record for sure.
We’ve been having too much fun seeing friends and family in Palm Springs, Moorpark, and more recently, visiting our favorite SF haunts and enjoying the beautiful Northern California winter. Not to mention bingeing on all the World Cup. Felicitaciones Argentina!
But as other nomads have related, retuning “home” is sometimes a bit tough, and strangely disorienting, especially when you know that you’re heading back out into the world again as nomads. It now feels more like a refueling stop, with the primary energy being friends (and tacos!) Nomadic life is endlessly stimulating, but without a base of friends and family to pivot off of, it might seem less invigorating. Contrast in life keeps it fresh.
We’ve also been reunited with some of our “stuff” in a local storage unit. It’s always exciting to roll up the storage unit door and see what is there. Luckily, most clothes to swap out for our visit and onward travels are near the front. It does beg the question of saving so many things, but we know that when we settle down again somewhere, we’ll enjoy seeing so many familiar things again in a permanent setting. Right?
But after 16 months of travel, we are now a bit awestruck by how streamlined our travel lives are compared to the complexities of typical American life. No home, no car, a few bills…a bag or two and sometimes bicycles. Life is a trade off, and many of our peers could choose to simplify and travel more, but for many, selling it all and going mobile may be just a bit too much.
It was not an easy decision for us either. And for many, simply renting your place out is an option, so you can return to your previous life with less of the uncertainties that selling creates. Of course, having no dependent kids or pets helps, and we recognize that this window in our lives to travel may be unique and precious.
Home is nice, and the longevity of friends and place gives you a unique perspective on the passage of time. So we especially appreciate the generosity of our friends sharing their homes (or dinner) with us as we return for these recharge sessions. Thank you to all for your generosity and please know we will try to repay someday when we again have some roots in the ground. (Especially Rich and Andi -:)
We’ve now just arrived to an usually cold and snowy Seattle after a somewhat leisurely 3 day drive from the Bay Area, catching up with good friends and family along the way. We have two house sits (x2 cats each). Hopefully now away from most of our friends and family I’ll be able to get back to the important tasks of global travel planing for 2023. But the Pacific Northwest is so intriguing….so many places to explore; hmmm?
But today the streets are still coated in snow and ice, so we’ll wait for the forthcoming thaw and settle into the coziness of our temporary cats, and sip coffee and tea as we look out into the evergreen and snow landscape. More on our Pacific Northwest winter excursion soon, as well as our scenarios for 2023 travel. Still no “plans” -:)
So after a relatively quick recovery from Covid in Lisbon, we finally made it back to the United States! We rejoined a revised and somewhat compressed itinerary and still arrived JFK via TAP Airways new fuel efficient A330. (Ok for airplanes at least…)
When our house sit in Boston fell through due to the owners case of Covid (ironic yes), Cheryl worked her magic and found a last minute house sit in Brooklyn. So after a quick change of plans and one obligatory night in an overpriced chain hotel close to the airport in Queens, we were off to Brooklyn by Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).
The house sit was a bit of a challenge with two old cats, lots of medications, and tight quarters, but certainly a memorable experience and in a part of Brooklyn we have never explored, Park Slope. It also was just a block from 4 subway lines!
It was a magnificent fall weekend and the weather was perfect for strolling, not to mention all the Halloween decorations and costumes, although admittedly, it’s often hard to pick out costumes from just “Friday” in uber hip Brooklyn.
The walking in Brooklyn also felt invigorating after Lisbon’s lumpy limestones. We could once again stride briskly, with standard crosswalks, and short light cycles. The fall colors and crisp weather were so magnificent that Cheryl belted out in Prospect park that “New England is so beautiful this time of year”. Wait, we are NOT in New England!! This is New York!
After some of her doubts were quickly settled by Google, we strolled on, but I was reminded that I was married to a true West Coast woman. I would be reminded again when she couldn’t believe we had passed through some states in an hour or less. Wait, seriously just 15 minutes in New Hampshire?! And how do so many Dunkin’ Donuts survive?
After three days loaded with good friends, perfect bagels and NY pizza, we were off via subway and Metro North train to New Haven, CT where we could pick up a rental car right at the station. The car was by far the best solution for our ambitious and compressed schedule we had to visit all our friends and family over the next 8 days.
It was nice to be back in the U.S., as things felt familiar and interactions were clear. We sometimes forget that we are even in foreign countries anymore as foreignness is our new normal. And we immediately appreciated small things like ubiquitous ice (just try to find an ice machine in a European hotel.) faster paced restaurant service (tip please), and giant American salads (Yes, Elaine Benes you can have a really big salad)
As for the things we didn’t miss? Crazy political ads on the TV, giant tailgating pickup trucks, ignorance, and shockingly high prices compared to much of Europe. (Not necessarily in that order -;)
The cost of living surprises people when we mention it, as many generally assume that Europe must be more expensive than the US. First off, the strength of the US dollar is peaking, and second, many people take short trips to the most expensive (A-list) cities only in Europe, and so get a skewed view of costs in general.
There also seems to be fewer corporate entities taking profits in the food chain of capitalism in other countries. Groceries, lodging, eating out, and transportation (except gas and parking), are cheaper almost everywhere we have been in the past 15 months. We won’t even bring up health care as costs are incomparable and often an order of magnitude less in Europe. (i.e. podiatrist in Bilbao, Spain $40, US $400+). Whoops, I brought it up again. So perhaps the social safety net and low health costs trickles through businesses to keep costs a bit lower.
But we had a wonderful time on our big New England driving loop, and still managed to work in some lovely walks, and a day of cycling into Boston. We really enjoyed reconnecting with folks and the mountains, rivers, ponds, streams, and trees that seem to fill 99% of New England.
I vow to come back to New England (and maybe even New York) more frequently, as staying in touch with your roots is important, and the feeling I had walking the neighborhoods of my childhood was joy, satisfaction, and peace. They are forever etched in my mind. No matter where else we go in the world, and whatever we experience, these memories of place will not be replaced. Experiences build in layers and hopefully growth and perspective with them.
So today is Election Day and we are now headed to Chicago for more family and friends recharge. We have our fingers crossed that people don’t take for granted the 200+ years of work it took to create the civic institutions and foundations for prosperity that we have.
Our system is not perfect and always a work in progress. But the institutions of democracy are unique, precious, and tenuous. And despite participating in many conflicts from afar, we have been physically isolated from the worst impacts of them, just as we are again isolated from the Ukraine invasion. We don’t share a border with an invader, and haven’t been occupied. But this could change in a flash. And the enemy could come from within. We can feel the fear in Europe as the free world knows a stable United States is still key to world stability.
Well, it was bound to happen. After over 14 months of travel, Covid finally caught up to us. Being really sick is definitely a low point of extended (or even short) travels. You just want to be home, have all your comforts, and be better. Luckily, our nomadic lifestyle has prepared us to deal with travel uncertainties a bit better and stay calm when a hiccup develops…even major ones.
After we tested positive earlier this week, we immediately prioritized our next steps: push back the flight to the NYC, extend our lodging in Lisbon, notify our friends we were to stay with in the US, and think about contingencies.
We respect this new virus and know that it has brought untold misery on the world, and uncertain outcomes to even the healthiest. And although Covid hit us hard for a few days, the worst soon passed. We are lucky to be quite healthy, with daily exercise, good sleep habits, and a good diet (mostly, as we do indulge in local foods that may not be on any top 10 health food lists).
Of course stomach ailments are a part of travel too, and we’ve had our share of them over many years, including India, Mexico, and Morocco. But one of the only nice things about stomach bugs is that they are usually over very suddenly. You often go from wanting to die on the toilet to wanting a double cheeseburger and a beer in hours. And we’ve always been lucky enough to only have one of us down and out at once. The other person is available to get hydration, meds, and make any travel changes.
But this hit us both at almost the same time. We were a bit fatigued as we left Bilbao, and fully masked on our travels, but it didn’t feel like anything more than maybe some post-Camino tiredness and a little stuffy head (No cough, no fever.). But it had settled in deeper by the time we got to Lisbon and we both woke up Wednesday morning with brain fog, extreme tiredness, more congestion, and some decent aches and pains. The Covid rapid tests an hour later confirmed what we already suspected…we both had it.
Luckily, we had booked an apart-hotel room for our 3 day stay and we were able to extend to 8 days in the same unit. It’s quiet and has two big windows looking at trees, and over 500 sq ft in two rooms, including (crucially) a kitchenette. So we are able to adventure out to grocery stores for supplies and have all our meals here, as well as lots of healthy fruit and veg, comfort food, and juices.
The two rooms allowed some space for us to relax separately in such cosy quarters. By Friday morning we both felt noticeably better, so Cheryl took another test. If she was still a strong positive, then we wouldn’t waste another test. So we were both thrilled when she tested negative, and I decided to test as well. Still somewhat positive…Today it was an almost imperceivable line, so I’m almost certain to be 100% negative by tomorrow!
So we are happy with our decision to push back our flights to the US to this Wednesday, as we’ve actually been able to start going out and enjoying some of this very beautiful city. We also had masked all day on our way to Lisbon, including the plane, and taxis, so hopefully we did not infect others, but it’s also made us realize that the virus is out there everywhere, and continuing our cautious ways in the future is smart, not to mention getting all the available boosters we can. We don’t want to go through this again (too soon) and don’t want to put anyone else unnecessarily at risk. But the virus is now a part of life, and part of travel, like it or not.
Another item of note is the fact that we’ll be on Day 89 of 90 allowable Schengen days this Wednesday, so we’re also really glad that we left 6 visa days of validity slack in our plans. For those who don’t recall, a U.S. citizen can only be in the 26 country border-free Schengen Zone of Europe for up to 90 days out of any 180 day contiguous period without a country-specific extended stay visa. It’s a rule that catches a lot of long term travelers out.
This is our second visit to Lisbon, as we were last here for 4 nights in early 2018, along with visits to Porto, and Coimbra. It’s still charming, and I especially love the extreme vertical terrain, where you never quite know which way is out of a valley. Surprises await if you get off the beaten track, but one thing that’s noticeable from even our last stay, is that the penetration of tourism seems even deeper into the neighborhoods.
It’s the age old conundrum of tourism development: by coming to see what everyone else wants to see, you are slowly changing it, and before long, the native and organic neighborhood elements are completely flushed out. Lisbon is still real, and there are Portuguese tourists here as well, but the relentless conversion of neighborhood properties into short term rentals via AirBnB, new boutique hotels and spas, and easy air access for cheap weekend visits, has made much of it feel a bit overrun.
It feels like a City fighting to keep its character. We recognize this from San Francisco, and know that locals will always know how to avoid the tourists and the touristy restaurants, etc. But San Francisco had a big advantage over Lisbon in the past 40 years, it was much more expensive to buy property, had strict development rules, and better tenant protections. As the Alfama neighborhood struggled and investment waned, rules were adopted that if someone would buy a property and renovate it, then all the tenants could be evicted. Period. It saved a lot of the buildings from ruin, but apparently decimated the local neighborhood.
It’s very evident today that only a few pockets of “authentic” neighborhood exist in the Alfama. But cities are always changing and Lisbon is adapting as well. Free transit for seniors and those under 23, a new waterfront revitalization, and a focus on preserving the unique culture.
There are also stricter rules on foreign Golden Visas, which have allowed many foreigners to settle in Portugal, but have really changed many neighborhoods in Lisbon, Porto, and smaller towns in the Algarve to expat enclaves. It’s a tough balance for a developing country that had a lot of debt and challenges in the past, but has an amazing extremely welcoming culture, good education and healthcare systems, and a fantastic climate.
But I have meandered a bit too far off track but do promise that next time we come to Portugal, we will see even more of it, and try to spread the tourism love further….perhaps walking along 200km of the Camino Portuguese.
Happy fall and looking forward to seeing some of you soon back in the USA!
Welcome back and sorry for the delay! After our wonderful 6+ weeks of exploring Ireland, we left Dublin under the threat of rain to catch an early boat to Holyhead, Wales. Our ultimate destination was a house and cat sit stay in Hove, on England’s historic south coast, and part of the lively Brighton and Hove municipality.
Luckily the rain managed to hold off while we rode to the massive Dublin port and terminal area, and the Irish Sea was thankfully calmer than predicted. We also decided to try out Irish Ferries instead of Stena Line, but we’ll fill you in on all the nuances of our year of ferry, train and bike travel in an upcoming post. Stay tuned.
Since we didn’t have time to ride all the way from Wales to Hove, we decided to train from Holyhead to London and then spend 3 relatively short days cycling to Hove via scenic back routes and footpaths. So we boarded the train in Holyhead, and after one transfer arrived in London.
But unlike our last ride across London, which was on a quiet Saturday morning, we had 17km of pure evening rush hour riding from Euston Station to Wimbledon. I had found a nice guest house in Wimbledon that was bike friendly, walkable to dinner, and much cheaper than any part of Central London. It also got us a bit on our way towards Hove, and allowed a bit of the stretching of the legs after the ferry and train time.
The irony of our ride was that Central London was still easy peasy due to light traffic, great bikeways, and smooth pavement. But as soon as we left the core and headed southwest into SW3, 11, and 18, the roads got a lot busier and the bike accommodation was less. The reimagined cores of global cities are now often ahead of their more suburban car oriented neighbors. Regardless, we made it to Wimbledon just fine, and were pleased to have a long 13-hour travel day over! It was then an easy walk to a great pub (The Alexandra) for dinner and some libations. We liked that the Alexandra had a sports side, non sports area, and upstairs loft, so you could choose your setting based on your mood. (Or passion for Arsenal or Liverpool!)
We had been to Wimbledon a few times when staying in London, as the area is nice, and walking though Richmond Park via Wimbledon Common is lovely. With easy train connections to central London, it’s a good alternative neighborhood to stay in if you want a bit less hubbub and cost than central London too.
There is no single “route” from London to Brighton and no National cycle network route that gets you there directly unless you divert fairly far east or west. You can head west via the NCR4 and 223 (rail trail-flat!) or east via the Avenue Verte, which is a good route to Paris via the Newhaven-Dieppe DFDS Ferry. We still went fairly directly and used Komoot, and a route on the Cycle.Travel site. I then tweaked each daily route to try to avoid busier roads, take in some sights, and hit sections of quiet lanes tagged by Komoot users. The big advantage of cycle touring on a leisurely schedule is that it is always easier to lengthen a journey and day as desired, but not the opposite. If you’re more time pressed, then you often have fewer choices and can be forced to take busier roads and ride through the worst of the weather.
The main roads south of London and in Sussex are all pretty busy, so we were happy to have the time to explore via smaller routes. It was also supposed to be rainy, and rain it did, so our schedule allowed us to duck under cover for showers, and not fret about excessively long days out in the wet. About 40-50k a day, but it did feel much longer on wet hilly roads, muddy paths, and stops at little sights along the way. Slow travel for sure.
One challenge of routing via Komoot or OS maps is knowing what the real condition of a footpath or bridleway will be. They vary widely! Smooth forest floor, decomposed rock or grass can be easy. Roots, mud, briars, and kissing gates or stiles can be a real challenge….your best bet is to look at notes/markers people have tagged in Komoot and be ready to turn around and divert back to paved roads as needed.
Even with our planning; we inevitably were on some busy stretches of A and B roads to connect up the quiet lanes, but they were not too bad for short stretches, but not recommended for longer distances, with large trucks and often mixed/no shoulders. Some A roads have bike lanes indicated on Google (light green solid lines), but these can consist of 2-3 foot shoulders, and with grit, wet roads, and high speed traffic, are not really anywhere you WANT to be. There is still a lot of work to do in the UK to make safe cycling networks complete and practical for those other than hard core sporty types. Or those with a lot of time (like us-:).
The other variable on footpaths is how they are maintained, as clearly some landowners don’t really seem to want to accommodate the rightful access. But don’t get me wrong, the public footpath and bridleway network in the UK is an amazing thing and really allows unfettered and peaceful walking almost anywhere you want to go. We really missed this in Ireland. So as we build our perfect country, we’d take the footpath system from the UK, and the cycling access from the Netherlands.
All in all, the three days were very nice despite the rain. Sussex countryside is beautiful and the rains of the past few weeks had regreened the landscape from the late summer drought. (But not enough to fill the reservoirs again!)
We arrived a bit early for our house sit, so decided to head to Hove Park, which is a very nice central park with a great cafe. Immediately we were greeted by a friendly cyclist who inquired about our travels and told us that would love Hove. Which we did.
Brighton and Hove have a temperate and pleasant oceanside climate, long established LGBTQ community, art scene, good restaurants , a walkable grid, and connectivity by bus and train. It’s hilly with both broad slopes and steep valleys that frequently reward you with views. It’s also flush with parks and borders the large South Downs National Park. It really reminded me of San Francisco and is a place we would consider staying awhile.
The rail connectivity means you can be at Gatwick airport in 30 minutes, and London in less than an hour. And you can even go all the way through London to Cambridge in 2 hours without a transfer. Getting to France is easy via Eurostar (from St. Pancras) and ferries from Portsmouth and Newhaven to the Normandy Coast.
So, with such great connectivity, we met friends from London on the Thameslink to hike, a friend in London for the day, and other friends in Worthing, an easy train ride west. It was also fairly bike friendly, especially along the coast. It was wonderful to get so much social time with friends.
The great waking and SDNP adjacency came in handy as we mostly parked our bikes and walked and hiked from our house sit in every direction (except the ocean). The comfy double decker bus system, with USB ports at every seat and easy contactless payment via credit card or Apple Pay (capped day fares!), was the most fun, especially along the coast.
The two weeks flew by, and we had to pack up, clean the apartment, and say goodbye to the sweet cat we had bonded with over two weeks. So we caught a train to Portsmouth and a ferry to Caen and another 3 day journey via train and bike to the Valleé Verte.
But where to next you ask? Let’s just say we’ll need all the walking fitness we can muster. But another update from Cheryl is coming soon. Bon Voyage!