Floating Over Laos

Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientienne / Laos

We arrived at the launch pad just as the sun peeked over the horizon. Above us, the fire blazed incessantly, burning the top of our heads as we settled into the large wicker basket. Two seconds later, we had liftoff. 

We were floating, floating, floating... on a hot air balloon.

As the sun rose over the limestone mountains of Vang Vieng, we climbed higher and higher until the houses and cars shrank to the size of ants. Everything was colored pastel in the delicate rays of the sunrise. The morning haze slowly dissipated. The experience was as magical as we had dreamt. Hot air ballooning had been on our bucket list for a long time, so when we saw the affordable price of a Lao Hot Air Balloon ride, we decided… this was the time to do it. A couple more pics below:

In fact, Laos had quite a bit of magic and surprise to offer, making it one of our favorite countries to visit. Our relatively short visit lasted just one week, but its natural beauty and the friendliness of its people made a deep impression. Below, some highlights from our short visit to Laos…

 

The Wanderlist: Laos

 

Time Travel in Luang Prabang

Our first stop in Laos was Luang Prabang, a town that appeared to be stuck in another time. It was colonized by the French in the 19th Century, which resulted in their influence of Luang Prabang's architecture and customs (this place still serves up a delicious baguette). Today, the town displays a beautiful mix of French and traditional Southeast Asian architecture, and is protected as a UNESCO heritage site, which helps maintain its historic and unique feel. The town is made even more stunning by its naturally beautiful surroundings—the hilly terrain, the mighty Mekong river flanking the city and the Nam Khan river twirling through it.

Luang Prabang is a walking city if ever there was one. So that’s just what we did. We spent several days just walking around and exploring all that the city had to offer: a gigantic night market with hundreds of craft and street food options, , a river boat ride at sunset, a visit to the dozens of Buddhist temples in town, including going up 328 steps to the top of Mount Phousi, which is rewarded with a gorgeous 360º view of the town. And just outside of town we made it to the turquoise blue Kuang Si waterfall and surrounding pools. On a hot day, this place was perfect for an afternoon swim.

If you can visit one place in Laos, make it Luang Prabang.

Downing Beers Downriver

The tiny town of Vang Vieng is a town built around the powerful Nam Song river, and is surrounded by towering limestone cliffs with lush green fields and jungles. It was, up until recently, known by world travelers as a notorious party spot. Alcohol and drugs flowed freely, especially in the center of the action: the river. On the river that flows peacefully next to the cliffs were dozens of bars serving up discount cocktails, loud music and rowdy drinking games. Partygoers would tube from bar to bar in a raucous aquatic bar crawl. Surprising no one, the buckets of alcohol, illegal drugs and sometimes rapid flow of water were a dangerous combo. Actually, it took a number of deaths and accidents for the authorities to come in to regulate the this unsupervised wilderness. 

Today, just a few bars can be open at a time and drugs are not as easily accessible (although they are very much present). What’s left is a peaceful and enjoyable experience with a little bit of alcohol and a lot of breathtaking views. 

Taking advantage of this, we hopped on our inner tubes and slowly floated downstream, admiring the gigantic charcoal black cliffs on either side. About ten minutes in we saw the first bar coming up ahead. A man threw us a rope and pulled us ashore. We walked into a bare-bones, raggedy bar with young travelers drinking and dancing in their swimsuits… it was 11AM. Looking to mix in with the locals, we grabbed a couple of beer cans and hopped back into our tubes. This was complete bliss. 

Later, feeling hungry, we hopped off at the next bar we saw. Once again, this one was full of 20-somethings chugging slushy cocktails and playing drinking games. We ordered a few pad thais and enjoyed the experience, then grabbed another brew for the road and hopped back into our tubes. 

For about four hours we floated, relaxed and talked our way back to Vang Vieng. The sun was setting as we reached the shore, and we sat down to enjoy the incredible vistas and to feel grateful for the wonderful experience.

 

The UXO Museum

Like Cambodia, Laos hasn’t had it easy in the last 50 years. It was the unfortunate collateral victim of the US strategy to disrupt Viet Cong supply routes during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s known there). More than two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos during this period, which equaled "a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years”. This makes Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history—more than Germany, England, Japan or Afghanistan. 

Despite the large number of casualties taken by Laos during the bombings, the tragedy still lives on today. About a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, meaning they are still lurking in the shallow underground. And though there is a concerted effort to remove undetonated bombs, about 20,000 people have been killed or injured by them since the bombing stopped in 1974.  

A UXO (Unexploded Ordinance) museum in Luang Prabang tells the history and tragedy these people experienced. It also shares the strength of the survivors who press on to make a life for themselves and their families. All of this and more contributed to the friendly, cheerful and open society of the Lao people we met on our visit.

 

The One With The F•R•I•E•N•D•S Bars

Last but not least, a quickie: Haven’t you always dreamed of a place where you can just sit back, have a beer, perhaps some food, and just CHILL while watching non-stop episodes of F•R•I•E•N•D•S? 

Well, if you’re ever in Vang Vieng, you’re in luck! As you walk around, you will run into several restaurant/bars that do precisely that—you can order food and eat while back-to-back reruns of the 90s sitcom play on the multiple screens. We’d highly encourage you to grab a beer or a milkshake, lay back, and enjoy some laughs in this perfect post-adventure relaxation.

 

 

How A 7-Month Journey Around the World Changed My Life

Taking it all in at Machu Picchu, Perú.

Taking it all in at Machu Picchu, Perú.

On August 2nd, 2016, I jumped on a plane to fulfill a dream: a long trip around the world. This Magellanesque adventure led me and my wife Jenn to on a literal trip around the globe, taking us across 15 countries on 4 continents in 220 days. We witnessed spectacular sights, met unforgettable people, ate unbelievable food. But it wasn’t easy. It took months — or, in some ways, years — of preparation, sacrifice, planning. It took tough choices, difficult conversations, plus loads of courage to overcome mountains of discomfort and self-doubt.

It was wholly and entirely worth it.

I am now safely back home, and have been thinking about how the journey changed my life in some expected — and unexpected — ways. Even though I suspect I haven’t fully understood the extent of the change, I very much feel like a different person than I was before I left. The clarity of mind afforded by an extended time off is a priceless gain that I would recommend anyone to try at some point in their life if they can.

Quick Disclaimer: This is a pretty personal piece. Its main objective is for me to untangle and make sense of what has been going on in my brain, to bring clarity to my current worldview, not to pass judgement onto others. That said, I will remain eternally grateful for this journey and the lessons it taught me, so I also hope that in sharing some of these learnings they can have a compounding effect on those who care to read and absorb them. I hope this helps inspire others to go on their own journey, whatever that may be, and find their own lessons.

So, here are a few ways a trip around the world changed my life:

[BEFORE WE START: Don’t have time/desire to read the whole post? Scroll down to the very bottom for the one-sentence summary of each lesson! Then save the article and read it later, you lazy bum 😉]

 

Jumping for joy at the end of the world in Patagonia, Chile.

Jumping for joy at the end of the world in Patagonia, Chile.

#1: I LEARNED FEAR AND LACK OF COMMITMENT ARE ALL THAT STANDS BETWEEN ME AND MY DREAMS

“Once you make a decision, the Universe conspires to make it happen.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

A while ago I read the book “The Everything Store” by Brad Stone, which tells the story of Jeff Bezos founding and growing the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.com. One particular anecdote in the book stuck with me: Bezos had to decide whether or not he should quit his safe, lucrative Wall Street job and risk starting Amazon.com. “When I’m 80,” he asked himself, “am I going to regret leaving Wall Street? No. Will I regret missing the beginning of the Internet? Yes.”

And the rest is history.

Inspired, I started using what I called the “Jeff Bezos Rule” to make more decisions in my life. I realized that applying that filter to choices in my life added clarity when deciding how I spent my time, attention, money and effort.

Would I regret… not trading my car in for a new, shinier model? Probably not.
Would I regret… not spending more time in the office? Unlikely, I already did a lot of that.
Would I regret… not putting more money aside for retirement? Maybe, but I was already maxing out a few IRAs, and I’m still relatively young.
Would I regret… not taking an extended trip around the world? Most definitely. So would Jenn. And neither of us wanted to end up like the guy from UP, forever postponing our heart’s desires. Life is now or never. So, we decided to just do it.

Cut to 2016. When we told friends and family about our crazy idea of taking an extended trip around the world, the most common phrase we heard was “I will live vicariously through you.” I realized that many people wanted to do something similar, but for a number of reasons couldn’t — or wouldn’t. In many cases, these were perfectly reasonable motives: money, fear to lose jobs, fear for safety, lack of time, kids in the household. But in almost all cases — should the desire to travel be strong enough—, these fears and reasons could be overcome given the right amount of effort, planning, commitment, mental framing, sacrifice or time. There are plenty of people who have faced the same obstacles, yet have somehow overcome them.

In our case, we treated this project responsibly. For years, we lived well below our means, saving or investing 30–50% of our income. Among others, we had an earmarked “travel bucket” savings account, which along with some freelancing work helped pay for the trip. We left our savings and investment accounts untouched, and saved up a “cushion” for when we got back. We wanted the assurance that this was a safe move, that we weren’t jeopardizing our future to make this dream come true. It took some planning and a little sacrifice, but it bought us the freedom to make it happen.

So what’s stopping us?

So after making one crazy dream come true, it dawned on me: The only thing that stood between me and any of my other crazy dreams was a lack of commitment. It was a failure to make choices. You see, when we say we “can’t” do something, it often just means we won’t. It means we aren’t willing to make choices that will inconvenience or risk other parts of our life. One person I knew, for instance, told me he wished he could afford to take a trip around the world, and then showed me pictures of his brand new Mercedes. “Man,” I thought, “it’s not that he can’t. It’s he won’t.” His new luxury ride, presumably, brought him higher satisfaction than a trip around the world would. And that’s OK! But if he really wanted to travel, he totally could. It’s just a life choice.

The same goes for 99% of those reading this right now. You, reader, are likely living in a free country, are unlikely to be suffering from starvation, unlikely to be in a major conflict zone. If you are literate and relatively healthy, you have more choice than you realize. Almost any dream you have is realistically attainable if you make the right choices over a long enough period of time. It’s not easy, but it’s realistic.

This was a critical breakthrough for me. After going this trip, I understood that the only thing that was holding me back was a lack of commitment, a failure to make certain choices. And I understood that underneath that was fear. Fear I would ruin my career. Fear I would lose friends. Fear of what my family might say. Fear something might happen to me or Jenn on the road. Needless to say, none of these fears materialized.

I now know that with the proper planning — along with massive courage and an unflinching desire — I can make almost any dream come true. Not only do I feel my mind has been open to the “anything is possible” truth of the Universe, I also now feel much more confident in my abilities to make my dreams happen.

The single most critical, most important step you can take to make your dreams come true is to fully commit to them. Decide to make your dreams true. Choose what truly matters to you, and pursue it. Screw fear. Be courageous. Don’t settle. Commit. It will likely take time, effort and sacrifice. But it is SO worth it.

Don’t call it a dream. Call it a plan. Write it down. Take a breath.

Now, get to work.

 

 

You sure seem to have an elevated opinion of yourself there, bud.

You sure seem to have an elevated opinion of yourself there, bud.

#2: I REFINED MY METRICS OF SUCCESS

“I now have a very simple metric I use: Are you working on something that can change the world? Yes or no? The answer for 99.99999% of people is ‘no.’ I think we need to be training people on how to change the world.” —Larry Page, Google Co-Founder and Alphabet CEO

There’s one thing travel does better than almost anything: it shows you your place in the world. You see your luck in the draw. When you travel, you’re quickly exposed to multiple points of view, lifestyles, socioeconomic levels, religions, housing situations, food preferences… and this makes you realize we all live in a bubble, that the richness and variety of the human experience is broader than you can possibly imagine. Moreover, you can’t help but realize how truly lucky you are.

How so? Consider the following:

  • If you earned $1,500 or more last year, you are at the top 50% of global income.
  • If you earned $25,000 or more last year, you are at the top 15% of global income.
  • If you earned $50,000 or more last year, you are at the top 1% of global income.

These numbers, by the way, are purchasing parity-adjusted, which means that it doesn’t matter if the cost of living is higher where you are — if you have running water, electricity, a TV and indoor plumbing, and sufficient food to survive, you are among the world’s elite. You are one of the lucky ones. You are lucky enough to be outside the 20 million people at risk of starvation today, RIGHT NOW, in what might be the largest hunger crisis since 1945.

“Yeah, yeah, there are terrible things happening in the world”

“Yeah, we all know there are big problems in the world,” you might say. “What else is new?” My intent here is not to preach. I’m not here to be a grandma going all “eat your food, child, there are hungry kids in Africa.”

Here’s why I bring this up: I used to think that success was achieved through a high status, a fair amount of money, a roomy house, a shiny new car every 2–3 years, the newest phone on the market, admiration and a pat on the back from friends and family. But then I achieved some of that. Then I had to get some more. And some more. And at some point the chase left me with the inevitable “Is this all there is?” feeling. This trip helped me realize the answer to that question was “no.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things. Not at all — most are in fact good things to strive for. But I believe there’s an even higher level to achieve: Giving. Impact. A “Dent in the Universe.”

As I saw rural life across South America and wandered through small villages in South East Asia, I thought about how I wanted to measure my life’s success. And it hit me like a ton of bricks: I am one of the few lucky ones, one of the privileged. This means that for me, success can be much broader, much more impactful than previously thought. I was quickly reminded of two things:

  1. There are so many insane problems in the world. I say ‘insane’ because there are no rational reasons why these things should be happening. The only reason they exist is because too many of us have accepted them as a sad fact of reality: Famine at the same time as obesity and 1/3 of the world’s food going to waste. 800 million people not having clean water — that’s 12% of humanity. Continuing climate change at the same time as the existence of sustainable energy sources. 21st -century schools teaching 19th century skills. Or even worse, smart children not going to school at all. None of these things make any sense. Freedom, education, health, basic comfort and dignity are still out of reach for a wide swath of humanity.
  2. Thanks to technology and communications, anyone can change the world more than ever. There has never been a time in the history of humanity in which a single individual can have so much impact. Be it telling stories on YouTube, getting crowdfunded on Kickstarter, accumulating venture capital, learning new skills on edX… anyone with access to these tools has the chance to literally change the world. And that includes more people than ever before.

So what would I do with this information? Well, did I really have a choice?

A new metric of success

I then decided that my metrics of success would be two things: 1) Impact and 2) Freedom. I’ll speak more to the latter (Freedom) in #3 below, as it deserves its own topic. But here’s my take on #1, Impact:

I believe that we all have a common life purpose: 1) to achieve happiness and 2) to leave the world better after we’re gone. The startling discovery is that once your basic needs are met, happiness is relatively easy to achieve. It’s something that, while unique to each individual, has basic levers and principles that can be learned and applied.

Now, the latter, the ‘make the world a better place’ piece… that’s trickier. Making the world better can mean many things, at many scales, for many people. For me, it’s not enough to “do just a little good” throughout your life. I think it’s morally correct for me to do as much good as I possibly can.And that means that at the end of my life, when I look back, this is the question I’ll ask myself: “Did I do as much good as I possibly could?”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I have a gift. It’s called education. It’s called skills. It’s called health. It’s called disposable income. It’s called a brain. It’s called hands. What was I going to do with that gift? Live in the rat race, get the next promotion, have more fun, buy a shinier car, nicer toys ad infinitum until I die? Or try to MAKE A FREAKING DIFFERENCE? Change the world? Would I be, as Larry Page asks, a part of the 0.00001%? CAN YOU IMAGINE how the world would be if ALL of us lucky ones helped the least fortunate among us? How much suffering we could prevent, how quickly we could end disease?

What about you? If you are a college graduate, or someone who has achieved great professional success, or someone who lives in relative comfort — congratulations! You are one of the brightest, most fortunate, most capable, most gifted people on the planet.

Now what?*

*PS: Here’s a fantastic resource to answer this question.

 

 

Livin’ free in the ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Livin’ free in the ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

#3: I REALIZED FREEDOM COMES FROM NEEDING LESS, NOT HAVING MORE

“Freedom isn’t attained by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.” — Epictetus

Jenn and I took off for our world trip with nothing but a backpack and the clothes on our back. This means that for the past 7 months, all my worldly possessions fit into one 40-liter bag (this one). It was big enough to carry a week’s worth of clothes and an extra pair of shoes, but small enough to carry and fit into airplane overheads.

I was a little nervous at first… would it suck? Would I miss the rest of my stuff at home? Or would I like the simplicity of it?

The verdict? It was freaking glorious! I LOVED living out of a backpack, not having to think about what I was going to wear, not having to clean up a cluttered room, not having to clean a house or apartment every weekend. It was just surprising to realize how few material things I needed in order to be happy. Turned out the simplicity gained far outweighed the feeling of lacking.

Instead, happiness was found in the doing, the experiencing, the creating, the conversing, the giving. And strangely enough, all of these seemed to be inversely correlated with the amount of stuff in my life. It appeared that the less I had, the more I could doexperiencecreate or give.

Most importantly though, this realization gave me freedom. I saw that when you need little to be happy, you don’t need to kill yourself to make as much money. What you do with your money becomes less important than what you do with your time. Money is a renewable, almost infinite resource. Time, however, is extremely limited and non-renewable. You can always make another dollar, but you can’t “make” another minute. If anything, you want to accumulate wealth so you can more wisely spend your time.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t care about money. Au contraire, it’s commendable to seek to earn as much as you can (without sacrificing your health, happiness or relationships over the long term). But then, place your focus on saving, investing, or giving more than on spending. Most financially independent people became that way because they lived well below their means, worrying more about their long-term freedom than about impressing the neighbors.

Doing what you want, being where you want to be at all times, hanging out with the people you want to hang out with, not having to be beholden to a job or place you don’t like… that’s true freedom, and I decided that from now on I will be making decisions that lead to more freedom, not less.

More than one type of clutter

I also found another way getting rid of clutter could make me happier. That’s because clutter doesn’t have to be physical.

It can also be mental clutter: frequent distraction, negative emotions, lack of self-control.
It can be time clutter: constant busyness, lack of priorities, a chaotic schedule.
It can be bodily clutter: unhealthy eating, excessive vices, lack of movement.

One life-changing realization came to me when I went to a retreat at Hariharalaya, a paradise enclosed in a small Cambodian village, where we spent an entire week practicing yoga and meditation. As part of the retreat, we were encouraged to do a “digital detox” for the duration of the retreat, staying completely off our phones (GULP!), laptops, tablets, and even cameras.

I was pretty nervous before we went. I couldn’t bear the thought of not having my phone for one day, much less a whole week?! But despite some initial anxiousness in the first couple of days, the week went by without a hitch. In fact, I quickly found myself having a much clearer head and a much more limber body (no doubt helped by the vegan meals and twice-daily yoga and meditation). Moreover, I realized these devices were literally zapping my creativity. I saw that the permanent distraction created by constantly checking email, news and social media was nothing more than a form of mental clutter. Even worse, it was a way for me to kill off the endless supply of creative energy I have inside of me. I had TOO MUCH energy, and I had to let it out somehow. So I stupidly liked cat videos and scrolled Twitter for hours on end.

During my time in Hariharalaya, I started doing something I always enjoyed but hadn’t done in years: I started drawing. Not only that: I learned to walk the tightrope, read six books, wrote several pages on my journal, and every night I played guitar while jamming with a super fun group of people. In other words, not being constantly distracted by technology “uncluttered” my mind, and created an explosion of creativity.

In summary, what did I learn? I learned that in this world of choice and abundance, there is such a thing as “too much” of something making for “not enough” of something else. Too much desire, not enough gratefulness. Too much stuff, not enough experiences. Too much distraction, not enough mindfulness. Too much consumption, not enough creation. Too much selfishness, not enough connection. And that, ultimately, freedom comes from removing the “too much’s” and embracing the “not enough’s.”

 

Swinging at the end of the world—Baños, Ecuador.

Swinging at the end of the world—Baños, Ecuador.

#4: I REALIZED THE WORLD IS HUGE, SAFE AND PROVIDING

“As the long-term traveler moves further and further along his planned timeline and creates more distance in Time from his ordinary life, the new life begins to assert itself. His old world begins to fade away both physically and psychologically. He feels free to roam the world without constraints of upbringing, culture, or education. […] Although many realizations occur during a long-term journey, there are a few that are almost certain to arise and become central.” — Nicos Hadjicostis, author of ‘Destination Earth’

Along our journey we met Nicos Hadjicostis, a Cyprian traveler who spent 6.5 years traveling around the world. We met him and his lovely partner Jane at the Airbnb Open in LA, where he moderated the panel I took a part of. Nicos recently published a book called Destination Earth, which lays out his philosophy and ideas on world travel. It was a fascinating read, and an appropriate one for us while on the road. One my favorite ideas of the book was the “Realizations of the World-Traveler”, which says that any long-term traveler eventually discovers a few truths about the world. Among those, one sees that the world is 1) huge, 2) providing, and 3) safe.

I found all of these to be entirely true. Taking a trip around the world is scary at first. So I did what I usually do when I’m scared of doing something, I’ll ask myself: “What’s the worst that can happen?” and “How likely is it that that will happen?” Often, the answers will be “not much” and “pretty unlikely” — maybe a scraped knee or a bruised ego, if anything.

So when I started getting nervous about going on this trip, I asked myself the same question. My mind quickly started going to dark places… What if we get lost? What if we get hurt? What if we get kidnapped? OMG, what if we DIE??

Needless to say (seeing as that I am not currently a ghost), none of these things actually happened.

In fact, it’s crazy, but the trip couldn’t have gone smoother. We took over 30 flights, and only one (our last flight, no less) was delayed. We visited 15 countries, stayed in 60+ Airbnbs/hotels and took 100+ buses/planes/trains/taxis/tuk-tuks. Not once did we feel unsafe or that we were risking our lives. In fact, 98% of our interactions were perfectly comfortable, safe and pleasant. Sure, there was the one time a Lao cockroach popped up in the room, or the one time a Vietnamese bus left us in the wrong town at 4AM, or the one time we left an Airbnb because it smelled like moist cigarettes. But those were the exceptions rather than the rule. Most lodging and transport was perfectly clean, comfortable and timely. For changing locations on average once every three days for seven months, we were sure lucky to find that most places and rides were awesome.

“Seeing The World As It Really Is”

In this journey I learned that how people act towards you is most often a reflection of how you act towards them. If I smile, they smile back. If I’m rude, they will be rude to me. Overall, this trip made me much more trusting, empathetic, and courageous, as well as less judgmental, fearful and selfish.

Buddha often claimed that one key to happiness was being able to SEE. See reality for what it truly is. See the world in its true form, not letting your own fears, judgements, cognitive biases, or preconceived notions lead your mind astray. Going on this journey allowed me to fight against my preconceived notions that the world is fundamentally unsafe, that in order to stay safe one must stay guarded, closed, untrusting of others. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s crazy when we consider that most of what we know about other countries or people comes from the media — show and news broadcasts that are designed to scare, capture attention, and get ratings. Nothing sells like fear. In fact, here’s a helpful reminder: by definition, if something is “news,” it means it’s infrequent, rare, outside the norm. It means that if you see, for instance, a terrorist attack, it’s in your Twitter feed or your TV screen because it doesn’t happen very frequently at all! Most hours of most days in most places go by without a hitch.

The world is much safer, benign, friendly — and frankly, much more boring — than these news would suggest. 99% of world citizens want the exact same things you and I do: to develop themselves, to support their families, to make their communities better.

So it really becomes a question of probabilities. To reap the 100% chance that traveling will change your life, are you willing to take the risk of 0.0000000001% of anything bad happening to you? The rational answer, in my opinion, is YES. We take much bigger risks when we get in our cars to drive to work, eat a sugary pastry for breakfast or ride a bike in our city. Any of those things are much more likely to kill you than traveling to most countries, and they will—in all likelihood—be far less rewarding.

So don’t believe the hype. Get out there. Experience the world for yourself. Talk to strangers. Take risks. You’ll quickly notice the world is indeed huge, safe and providing.

 

 

Feeling lucky in Koh Lanta, Thailand.

Feeling lucky in Koh Lanta, Thailand.

#5: I WAS REMINDED WHAT’S CLOSEST MATTERS MOST

“Distance is not for the fearful, it is for the bold. It’s for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone in exchange for a little time with the ones they love. It’s for those knowing a good thing when they see it, even if they don’t see it nearly enough.” — Meghan Daum

There’s not much to complain about when you’re traveling around the world. That said, by far the hardest part of the trip was being away from friends and family during the Holidays. We were in Koh Lanta, Thailand, and it was the first time I had ever been away from home for Christmas. There was something about being on a remote island, in a completely different time zone, that made for a feeling of true distance between us and the other side of the world — everything and everyone we knew and loved. This marked the first time I felt true homesickness during the trip.

This experience reminded me that no matter where life takes you, no matter what you achieve, no matter who you become, no matter where you travel… there is nothing more important than the people closest to you. Your parents, your siblings, your partner, your cousins, your grandparents, your friends. Never forget where you came from. No man is an island. Your own life journey only goes so far as long as you can bring others with you. Your journey is only complete once it is shared.

A relationship litmus test

Speaking of closeness, Jenn and I were a little scared before we left… How would we feel about being together 24/7 for almost 8 months? Even though we’d been together for 5+ years, we’d never really spent that much time together. Even more, we would be staying in single rooms at Airbnbs and hotels everywhere. There would be almost no private time or space. Would we drive each other crazy? Would we get tired or — worst of all — bored of being around each other??

Turns out, this trip was the best possible thing we could’ve done. Not only did we not get tired of each other, but today we feel closer and more in love than we’ve ever been. We even feel a tinge of separation anxiety when we’re apart :). That’s how I know I married the right woman — I don’t think I could’ve traveled so far and for so long with anyone else in the entire world.

Going back to Lesson #1 (“dreams are made of commitment”), I also learned about the importance of being aligned in goals, values and a life vision when it comes to a marriage or relationship. We both wanted this, it took both of us to make it happen. If one of us had bailed, the whole thing would’ve gone by the wayside.

Travel is the perfect litmus test for a relationship. If you can travel together, you might be able to handle the challenges and uncertainties that any long-term relationship will likely bring. This journey helped us better learn each other — we understood our quirks, we found ways to make each other happy, we strived to make the relationship balanced. It was a constant give-and-take. In a way, it was a way to squeeze a number of lessons from a multi-decade relationship into this short, 7-month period.

I’m incredibly grateful for her patience, wisdom, love and — let’s be honest — travel planning skills. Now, we can’t wait to start the exciting new stage of our lives together.

 

 

Climbing (figuratively speaking)= Peak Living. Yosemite, USA

Climbing (figuratively speaking)= Peak Living. Yosemite, USA

#6: I REDISCOVERED THE JOY OF THE CLIMB

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.” —Viktor Frankl, author of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’
“A musician must make music, a painter must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we call ‘self-actualization’. It refers to man’s desire for self-fulfillment, namely for a man’s need to become ‘actually’ what he is potentially. To become everything that he is capable of becoming.” —Abraham Maslow

An interesting phenomenon happened while we were traveling: Time seemed to go by sloooowly. A week felt like a month. A month felt like a year. Everything simply stretched out. It feels like we left forever ago. And in that slowness, I was alive, I was present.

That feeling, I think, leaves something with you. Makes you think. It had been a while since I felt time going by so slowly. In fact, as I thought about it, I remembered the last time that was: when I was young, around 12 years old. Back then, each year seemed to last FOR-EV-ER (*cue The Sandlot reference*).

Why? And what did it have in common with what I was currently experiencing?

I discovered the reason time seemed to slow down is because I was in a mode of FAST GROWTH. When you’re 10 or 11 years old (or younger), you are growing fast. Most things you learn, most experiences you have, most languages you hear, most concepts you discover are entirely new to you. Therefore, you become an entirely different person from year to year. But then your teens come crashing in. You figure out how the world works. You start to see patterns. All of a sudden, things are a little less exciting. Your growth plateaus, and stays that way during most of your adult life, inching upwards, one small growth spurt at a time.

This trip was a way of hacking my brain to achieve the same feeling. The struggle, the adventure, the newness… they all produce one thing: growth. So time slowed down. I said to myself, “this is peak living.” And once I felt it, I decided that for the rest of my life I wanted to live in a peak state as frequently and for as long as I can.

Struggling for the peak

Of course, travel is not by any means the only way to achieve peak state. It’s just a relatively fast and reliable way to do so. Extreme sports, a job you absolutely love, or an exceptional romantic relationship are others I have experienced. And there are many more, I’m sure. But traveling around the world helped me acquire more of the mental, physical and financial tools to live each day in a peak state. It also does NOT mean every day should be — or even can be — total and complete bliss. Bliss ≠ Peak State.

Here’s what I am saying, though: I should work my damn hardest to put myself each and every day in a struggle, an adventure, a mountain — as Frankl would say — worthy of myself. It means that peak states require fast and massive growth, and the only way to get there is by risking, challenging myself, being in a constant state of discomfort. It’s not about happiness and comfort, it’s about meaning and growth.

So, I decided to leave a relatively comfortable life and career to try to climb new mountains, take new risks, play in higher leagues, have more impact, reach for more freedom. And that’s what I will be doing, writing about and—no doubt—failing at for the next few months. If you’d like to stay updated, feel free to sign up here.

In the meantime, thank you for reading! I would love to hear from you — thoughts, questions, challenges to the above. Drop me a comment below or email me at rolando@artofwanderlust.com


TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)

#1: I learned fear and commitment are all that stands between myself and my dreams. When you do something crazy, you realize most “crazy” goals are actually not that crazy.

#2: I refined my metrics of success. Travel let me see I am one of the lucky ones, so success broadened to “How much good can I do?”

#3: I realized freedom comes from needing less, not having more. Be happy with what you have, and you’ll never find yourself wanting.

#4: I saw the world is huge, safe and providing. Don’t believe the hype. Most human beings want the same as you — happiness and opportunity.

#5: I was reminded what is closest matters most. My family, friends and marriage are my everything. Life is only complete when shared.

#6: I rediscovered the joy of the climb. I won’t be happy unless I’m climbing the next mountain worthy of myself.

A Life-Changing Journey into Cambodia

Phnom Pehn, Siem Reap, Battambang / Cambodia

As we left Thailand, the first Asian country in our trip, we reflected on its economically developed nature and heavy tourism. We understood why people call the country ‘Asia Lite’: While it’s stunningly beautiful, it’s also a relatively westernized one. And although this made it super easy to travel around (Burger Kings, McDonalds, Pizza Huts and KFCs were easy to find), we were left longing for a truer “Asian experience.” Something a bit more… adventurous.

Cambodia was just what we were looking for. In fact, this country—more than any other in our trip—changed both our lives forever.

We stepped out of the airport in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and were instantly hit with the incessant buzz of urban Cambodian life. We were overwhelmed—the city was loud, the streets were dirty, there were thousands of motorbikes weaving in and out somehow making due without traffic lights. The place looked so different, so foreign. It was the closest we came in our entire trip to an instant culture shock.

We were excited to be in a country that seemed so different from back home. Cambodia offered what we had imagined South East Asia would be like. In our three weeks there we learned it was a place that serves a taste of a simpler life, full of ancient treasures and beautiful people. 

Below, you’ll find our accounts of:

  • Visiting the sites of the worst genocide after World War II
  • Unplugging for a yoga and meditation retreat in the middle of nowhere
  • Exploring ancient temples, Tomb Raider-style (literally, they were filmed there)
  • Speeding on an old train track... on a bamboo raft 

Before you read on, we wrote an entire post about our visit to the incredible Cambodian Children’s Fund, which you can find here

Now, enjoy The Wanderlist: Cambodia...

The Wanderlist: Cambodia

Angkor Wat

Us westerners tend to have a pretty euro-centric perspective on world history and affairs. It’s somewhat mind-blowing when we realize that during much of history, while Europe and the Americas were in cultural and economic shambles, fending off invaders and diseases, the East was exploding in both population and cultural richness. During much of history, civilization was best exemplified by the East, not the West.

Such was the case of the Khmer Empire, which reigned supreme on South East Asia for over 700 years, constantly rivaling the Chinese, Japanese and Thai kingdoms for dominance of trade routes and military might. The city of Angkor was once its capital, housing over 1 million inhabitants and spectacular buildings spread out in a city the size of Manhattan.

Today all that remains are the stone ruins of the once-lost temples that were abandoned and forgotten by the 17th century, then rediscovered by the French in the late 19th. This place is deservedly classified as one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, and was one of the Top 3 “must-see” destinations we had noted before we began our trip.

It didn’t disappoint.

The Angkor complex is so large we spent three whole days wandering around these wondrous temples, being constantly awed by their majesty and uniqueness. Consider that some temples had been built hundreds of years apart, so each temple had something new and different to offer. Some served as residences, some as temples of worship and some as universities of study. And interestingly, while most are being restored to their former glory, the discoverers had the clarity of mind to keep just a couple of them in the same shape they were found in the 19th century—rocky, with ingrown vegetation and massive trees. Think “Tomb Raider”. As for the rest, we like to imagine the intense lego jiu-jitsu that had to place to put those thousands of felled rocks back in the exact same place.

 

Zen and Yoga in the Jungle

As we lay on the soft jungle floor, we looked around. Above, thin, tall trees swaying with the wind, scratching the blue sky. Below, tiny ants, geckos and other critters crawling under leaves on the soft, reddish-brown sand. To our left, an abandoned 1,000-year Khmer temple forgotten through the ages, with lush vegetation growing around it. To our right, about 15 young travelers joining us to practice yoga in this magical setting. 

How did we get here? Over the past couple of years, both of us had tried and failed to incorporate some form of yoga and meditation into our morning routines. Yoga is good for strength and flexibility, while meditation helped us live life more in-the-moment, increasing our creativity and reducing our anxiety. We had practiced on and off and loved how these practices made us feel, but like many things… life just got in the way, and our routines would fall by the wayside.

In fact, before we left on the trip Jenn had committed to making yoga and meditation a part of her morning routine once and for all. She figured, no commitments and we set our own schedule… how on Earth could it fail? Flash forward to January, 5+ months into our trip, and she had failed to do so consistently. No matter what, there would always be an excuse not to do something. In light of that failure, our continued desire to make it a part of our lives, and impending end of our trip, we thought it’d be a great idea to do a yoga and meditation retreat while in South East Asia. So we scheduled a 6 day, 5 night retreat at a place called Hariharalaya just outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

On day one we were picked up from Siem Reap with a group of 25 other aspiring yogis from around the world. We tuk tuk’ed into a refreshingly rural part of town and were greeted with snacks and cucumber water by Hariharalaya’s crew of experienced yoga and meditation instructors. Spilling out over several acres surrounding the hall were the most perfectly mindful retreat spaces: an open-air yoga hall, a library, reading/meditation areas, an open air cinema, a pool with lounge chairs, hammocks tucked into quiet corners, a juice bar, a rock climbing wall, an outdoor gym, an art and music space, and a dozen thatched roof bungalows that would serve as our homes for the week. 

The daily routine consisted of three vegan meals a day plus 3 hours of daily yoga and meditation, split into a morning session and an evening session. Then, throughout the week several odd (but oddly fun) activities were scheduled: an ecstatic dance night (think ‘dancing-like-no-one-is-watching’ to strobe lights and techno music) and a trip to an ancient temple where we did yoga and had a picnic. 

The rest of the time was free to do whatever you liked—reading, swimming, biking around the village, writing, painting or playing music… anything that didn’t require a device. After all, the retreat required a digital detox, so no electronics were allowed at any time. This flexibility allowed each to make of the retreat exactly what they needed. Jenn spent lots of time reading, thinking and writing, relishing the quiet space to gather her thoughts on life after the trip. Rolando used the retreat to recapture his creative side, sketching and playing the guitar, realizing he needs to make time for creative expression in daily life. Throughout the week we connected with the other participants, lovely people from around the world who were each on their own journey and had a unique perspective to share. 

We left the retreat refreshed and energized for 2017. And as of this writing, Jenn has successfully added yoga and meditation to her routine every single day since the retreat!

Hitting Top Speeds on the Bamboo Rail

Years ago when this round the world trip was just a twinkle in Rolando’s eye, we watched a young Anthony Bourdain (celebrity chef w/ multiple TV shows) traverse Cambodia tasting all types of strange Cambodian delicacies. One part of the episode that stuck with us was the scene where he and his crew buzzed around rural Cambodia at high speeds on nothing but a bamboo raft. Rolando and I looked at each other and in that moment knew that raft would be part of our adventure some day. The memory bubbled to the surface as we began planning our Cambodian itinerary in earnest a couple months ago.

Long story short… We made it happen, as you can see in the video above!

So how, you may ask, did such a unique form of transportation come to be? When the old trains originally installed by the French stopped working, many villagers around Battambang Cambodia were left without a form of transportation to and from the city. Undeterred, the villagers created wheeled bamboo rafts which they pushed along the railway with a tall bamboo reed. Years later they opted for a quicker and easier solution, attaching a motorcycle motor to the raft.

The only problem? There was only one track, but two directions of traffic. A set of rules was created to avoid collision: whoever has the fewest people has to step off his raft, disassemble the whole thing, let the other guy through and then reassemble to keep going.

Today, as better roads are being built and rumors of the Cambodian government seeking to fix the tracks and install a proper train, the famous bamboo rail may come to an end. We’re just glad we got to ride it while we could!

 

**Warning: The next one contains strong anecdotes and imagery.**

Learning the Horrors of the Cambodian Genocide

Not long after we arrived in Cambodia, a fellow traveler challenged us. He said "Look around. As you get around, see if you can spot a local who looks older than 60." Remarkably, it was almost impossible. Days would go by as we traveled around the country, and sightings of older Cambodians—particularly men—were rare and far between. 

Little by little, we learned the horrific reason why this was the case: the 1975 Cambodian genocide, in which nearly 2 million people died. If you’re like most westerners (us included), you likely know little if anything about this terrible (and relatively recent) event.

One of the first lessons came as we walked through the gates of Tuol Sleng. At first it looked like a regular middle school—an open courtyard with green grass and trees surrounded by buildings full of classrooms. Then we saw the 10-foot wall covered in barbed wire and noticed the ghostly quiet in the air. Inside the “classrooms” were torture devices, metal bed frames, thousands of black and white photos of hopeless faces. It turned out this school was once turned into a place of torture and death under the hands of the Khmer Rouge, also known as “The Organization”, a mere 40 years ago, in one of the worst genocides in modern history. 

A short primer on the conflict: The unrest in Cambodia had its roots in the Vietnam War (or the “American War,” as it’s known there). During the war, the United States carried out what’s known as the ‘Secret War’—they bombed Viet Cong supply routes that ran through rural Cambodia and Laos. In just four years, the US dropped more than 2.7 million tons of bombs in Cambodia, exceeding the amount used during WWII and killing as many as 500,000 Cambodian civilians. Hundreds of thousands of others were driven from their farmland and into the cities to escape the horror.

A fringe political group of the 1970’s, the Khmer Rouge, propagandized the bombing, saying a change in regime was needed to help the country recover. They gained great support and were initially welcomed into Phnom Penh as liberators as they overthrew the Cambodian government on April 17th, 1975. It soon became clear though that the leader of the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot, had an eerie vision for Cambodian society. Influenced by Mao and Marx, Pol Pot believed he needed to “purify" the country, starting over at Year Zero and immediately reinstating a fully agrarian society. He abolished money, education, private property, free markets, religion, and cultural traditions. He destroyed schools, churches, temples, government buildings and cultural relics. Within days he forced millions of people out of the cities and into the country, and made them work in fields growing rice under harsh conditions, limiting their rights and freedoms.

To further purify the country the Khmer Rouge arrested, tortured and killed those they believed were “impure." This included the old government regime, military and practically all college-educated citizens. Even wearing glasses or having soft hands was a signal to the Khmer Rouge that you were of high society, which could get you killed. Those arrested were taken to prisons and concentration camps, which included Tuol Sleng (the aforementioned converted high school). People were held and tortured for months in the most deplorable of conditions. When the Khmer Rouge decided it was time, those prisoners were taken to one of the hundreds of ‘Killing Fields’, bludgeoned to death and thrown in a mass grave. Of the 14,000 people who were taken into Tuol Sleng, only 12 survived. Tuol Seng was just one of many prisons set up by the Khmer Rouge. In time, they became more and more paranoid, arresting thousands of people without cause each month. By the end, they were turning on themselves, arresting and executing some of their top brass. 

The Pol Pot regime came to an end when the Vietnamese invaded and took Phnom Penh in 1979. In the 4-year period of the Khmer Rouge, over 2 million people were killed. That was over 25% of Cambodia’s population. Add to that deaths from bombings, famine, war, and rebellion and an estimated 4 million people died in Cambodia between 1970 and 1980. 

Take that in for a minute… 50% of a country's population was completely obliterated. Each and every one who survived has a story. They lost a parent, a grandparent, a brother, their entire family. All of their traditions and customs were halted, and some were lost forever. Pol Pot wanted to start society from Year Zero, and in many ways he was successful. Cambodia is in a stage which many modern societies were in 100 years ago. They are poor, their infrastructure is lacking and they are in desperate need of educated and honest leaders. They are a country that’s actively healing and they have a long way to go.

Remarkably, this story is still relatively unknown—and unpunished. It wasn’t until the past 5-7 years that members of the Organization have been put on trial. Some are even a part of the ruling government. Pol Pot died comfortably in his own bed back in the late 90s. 

Visitors and citizens can visit Tuol Sleng, the Killing Fields and other memorials around the country to pay tribute to those killed. Although it’s a haunting experience, it’s a responsibility for all of us to know about it. We can all learn from this tragedy, and seek to prevent something similar from ever happening again. 

….

We reluctantly said goodbye to the beautiful people of Cambodia and continued on our adventure in South East Asia. What an absolutely remarkable three weeks… Cambodia, we have a sneaking suspicion we’ll be back.

Until next time,
Jenn & Rolando

---

P.S. If you missed it, check out our blogpost on our experience visiting an amazing organization in Phnom Penh—the Cambodian Children’s Fund, or CCF. This place is changing the lives of 1,000’s of Cambodia’s most underprivileged children.

The Extraordinary Life (and Death) of Eva Peron

Building of the Ministry of Health and Public Works in Buenos Aires, depicting an image of Eva giving a passionate speech (not biting into a juicy hamburger...)

I'm a little ashamed to say that much of what I knew about Argentina before our visit could be credited to Madonna.

This included lyrics to “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, “What’s New Buenos Aires”, and a few shaky details about the life and death of Eva Peron. These details came, of course, from the Broadway show and hit movie “Evita” (starring Madonna) which tell the story of the simultaneously revered and hated former First Lady of Argentina.

During our visit of Buenos Aires we learned a bit about this lady legend. Let me tell you: her life (and afterlife) is certainly good fodder for a drama. Even though she died in 1952, Evita still elicits strong feelings of either love or hate from the people of Argentina. On the two history tours we took, one guide was enamored by this charismatic, saint-like beauty, while the other guide thought she was a self-absorbed dictator who caused serious damage to the country. I was intrigued by the stories these guides told and their competing viewpoints. So, attempting to get an unbiased perspective, I read a well footnoted biography by a couple of outsiders, called “Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron" by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro.

Below is a summary of what I learned, a history as fascinating and troubled as any historical figure you’ve heard of. What’s more, Evita not only had an interesting life, but also an insane afterlife. I hope you find her story as intriguing as I did.

GETTING TO POWER: EARLY LIFE AND MEETING PERON

Portrait of Eva and Juan Peron hanging in Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.

Eva was born an illegitimate child in a poor rural village. Her family had little and lived very simply, but from a young age she had big dreams—she wanted to leave that town. At 15she moved to Buenos Aires with the hopes of becoming a star, but for years she had little success, securing only minor roles and finding herself in situations where she had to choose between keeping her morals and getting the parts she wanted. She struck it big at the age of 18 when she landed a recurring role in a radio soap opera. With her steady, charismatic voice, she was almost guaranteed success on the radio.

But her icon status wasn’t solidified until she met her husband, Juan Peron. Juan was an up-and-coming political figure in Argentina. His greatest accomplishment at that time was providing basic rights to workers (including enforcing 8-hour workdays and paid time off). Not surprisingly, he was simultaneously loved by the working class and hated by the Argentinian oligarchy. But, as in most cases, the working class was the majority and gave him the backing he needed to run and for win the presidency in 1946.

EVA BECOMES EVITA: THE LOVED AND FEARED FIRST LADY

Eva often gave passionate speeches from the balcony of Casa Rosada, the presidential palace.

With her charismatic personality, Eva played a key role in connecting her husband’s policies with the people of Argentina. Eva loved the presidential limelight and the benefits that came with it: fancy parties, lavish dresses, rooms full of shoes, gigantic pieces of jewelry. It was a life very different than the one she grew up with. The working class people of Argentina loved the idea of Evita—a poor girl who made it big. She became an icon.

And she didn’t forget about the "little people" either. With the help of her husband’s government, she started the Eva Peron Foundation. Through the foundation, the poor could write her letters to ask for literally anything they needed—clothing, homes, dentures. She would then meet each person individually in Buenos Aires and arrange for them to get whatever they needed. She personally helped thousands of people live better lives in just a few short years of power. Under her foundation she built dozens of schools and hospitals for the poor, opened homes for orphans and underprivileged women among innumerable other social works.

This elevates her to Saint status, right (she was, incidentally, recommended for canonization by her supporters after her death)?

Not so fast. The other side of the story reveals a problem: the dictatorial way in which she and her husband achieved these feats. A large portion of the government’s budget was funneled to her foundation, yet Eva was the sole person allowed to decide what happened to it. Even more problematic, ‘donations’ to the foundation were not voluntary for people above a certain threshold of wealth. If wealthy person refused to donate, the government would retaliate against them in some way, for instance, shutting down their business..

It didn’t stop there. Under Peron, media unfavorable to his party was shut down, and the Peronist government used Eva’s popularity as propaganda, imposing the idea of her as the country’s savior to a ridiculous degree. The names of entire cities were changed to "Eva Peron”. Her biography became required reading in schools, where children recited prayers that included reference to both God and Eva. The first thing children learned to write in school was “Evita loves me. I love Evita.” She was declared the spiritual chief of the nation.

In short, while she made real difference in the lives of the poor, she took many (often unconstitutional) liberties to do so. Her controversial actions and her husband’s iron fist deeply angered the oligarchy and caused a great political unrest, which would soon end with a clash...

FOREVER YOUNG: EARLY DEATH AND POST-MORTEM INSANITY

This polarizing figure’s life came to a sad, early end: Evita got cervical cancer at 33, and very suddenly died thereafter.

The country was in shock. The working class mourned her death as if she were a family member and millions came to pay their last respects the first weeks after she passed. To allow Argentinians to forever see and revere her, Peron decided to embalm her body so it could displayed in a mausoleum (this was also likely an attempt at leveraging her figure to keep the Peronist movement alive).

Unfortunately, before the temple was built, Juan Peron and his government were overthrown, forcing him into exile and instilling a new military government.

But Evita’s story doesn’t end there. Brace yourselves, it’s a wild ride...

The new government wished to rid the country of all symbols of the Peronist government, including Eva’s body. To do so, the body was taken into hiding, first in an unmarked van that drove around during the day and parked at night. All of a sudden, flowers started appearing by the van, suggesting that information of her body’s whereabouts had leaked. So Evita’s body was moved to the back room of a cinema for a period of time. Unbeknownst to many, they were watching a movie while Evita’s body hid in the back. But once again flowers began to appear by the theater.

So, the body was entrusted to a government officer, who hid it in his attic for safekeeping. Knowing that there was a legion of Peron supporters searching for the body, the officer soon became paranoid that someone would break in looking for Eva and harm him and his family. One night he heard a noise and saw a shadow walking in the hallway. He shot and killed the figure who tragically turned out to be his pregnant wife.

Evita's body was then moved to the possession of a general who kept it in his office. On occasion, the deranged general would open the casket, show the body, and brag to visitors about "his woman” as if she were a kind of trophy. Once word of this got out to the president at the time, Pedro Aramburu, he decided to take the body from the general and put an end to the fiasco.

Aramburu enlisted the help of a priest from the Vatican, asking him to bury the body overseas under a false name, write the body’s location on a piece of paper, seal it in an envelope and give it to his lawyer. He then asked his lawyer not to open the letter until 10 years after his death. For his own safety from the Peronists who were constantly searching for Evita, he asked not to be told the location of the body. Unfortunately, this didn’t save him. Suspecting he had some information on the body’s whereabouts, Peronist supporters kidnapped him from his home and tortured him for information. Since he didn’t have much to share, he was shot and killed (he is famous for his stoic last words: “Proceed”).

Aramburu’s body was returned to his family and buried. Years later, Peron supporters, still eager to find Evita’s body to help catalyze their underground movement, broke into his tomb, and kidnapped him again. They would return the body only when Eva’s body was returned.

Eva’s body was dug up from the cemetery in Milan where she had been laid to rest for 14 years under a fake name. Her body was dropped at Peron’s doorstep in Madrid, where he was living in exile. Miraculously, she still looked like her old self, relatively unscathed for a person who had been dead almost 20 years!

She was eventually laid to rest where she is today: a very basic mausoleum built for her family in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires. Without much fanfare or luxury, a few small plaques are the only indication that Evita is buried there.

---

Today, Peronism still remains as powerful and controversial as ever. Many feel the Perons robin-hooded their way toward helping the poor and left a divided Argentina in their wake, others feel it’s the only modern government that’s actually done something real for the working class.

Eva didn’t get that gigantic monument built for her in the capital but it turns out she didn’t need it, her controversial legend is still very much alive in Argentina.

The Quest for the World’s Best Pad Thai

Pad Thai.jpg

Bangkok / Phuket / Koh Lanta / Chiang Mai

Let's be honest… when planning our trip to Thailand, the thing Jenn was most excited about was the Pad Thai (this might have even influenced our decision to go there). For instance, while traveling in Argentina in September, a sudden craving for that delicious, spicy rice noodle dish struck and it struck hard. We searched desperately from restaurant to restaurant to no avail. It wasn’t until we returned to the US that we got our hands on some quality Thai food. So knowing we’d be in Thailand, where this legendary dish originated, sparked great excitement. Jenn imagined Pad Thai for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

When we got to our first Thai destination, one of our first Google searches was ‘Best Pad Thai in Bangkok’. The results were unequivocal: a place called Thip Samai, in a corner of Bangkok received this honor from locals, tourists and travel publications alike. Our mouths watered as we made our way to what seemed like a small, unassuming local eatery. It looked just like all the other local shops, making us wonder if we were even in the right place. But the walls plastered with awards and clippings from features by CNN, BBC, and National Geographic assuaged our doubts. We ordered the famous Pad Thai, which showed up within minutes—piping hot, spicy goodness wrapped neatly in an omelet. They provided all the fixings: chili flakes, lime and a bucket of crushed peanuts to add to the unique sweet, spicy and savory flavor profile that makes this dish so special.

Liked it so much we ordered seconds. Definitely the top Pad Thai we’ve ever tasted (we’re not calling the search just yet though—the process is just too delicious).

Great food isn’t all that Thailand had to offer, of course. We had an amazing few weeks exploring this beautiful and diverse country. Check out our Wanderlist below to hear about some of our favorite experiences.

The Wanderlist: Thailand

I’m Dreaming of a White (Sand) Christmas

Perhaps the only instance in which us world travelers are justified in feeling sorry for ourselves is being away from our families for extended periods of time. This was the first time in Rolando's life that he had been away from Guatemala during Christmas, and the second time Jenn had been away from Cleveland. Since a flight to and from that side of the world was cost prohibitive we decided to make the most of our Asian Christmas, opting for a quiet and secluded holiday on an island in Southern Thailand.

Southern Thailand offers a plethora of paradisiac, sun-kissed islands, each with their own unique characteristics. We were seeking beautiful scenery, abandoned beaches and a laid back atmosphere, making Koh Lanta the perfect choice for us. We nested up on the south of the island—where few tourists traversed—in a hotel that overlooked Bamboo Beach. Just a short walk down a hill was a secluded and pristine beach where we bathed in warm, pool-like water, sipped fresh fruit smoothies from the little restaurant hut and made sand men from the white sand surrounding us (snow men were harder to pull off).

We enjoyed a peaceful and relaxed Christmas. At night we went to a neighboring resort for their Christmas dinner celebration complete with décor, Santa hats and music. Then we went home and Skyped with our families. We shook off our self-pity and decided to be thankful for each other, thankful for our experiences, and thankful that modern technology allowed us to celebrate (if only for a few minutes) with our family a world away.

 

Sometimes You Just Have To Say Phuket

From what we heard from others, no journey to the South of Thailand would be complete without a visit to Phuket, the most famous and visited of all the islands, one most notorious for its raucous party atmosphere. This would be the perfect place to ring in the New Year.

We arrived a few days before New Year’s Eve. The island looked much more developed than Koh Lanta. Streets lined with tuk tuks, restaurants, street vendors selling their goods, and thousands of "massage parlors" (which we suspect were unfortunately fronts for a different type of business). As we walked further into town away from our secluded hotel, we found the main street, which was overwhelming. Bar after bar after bar, hundreds of tourists taking part in the very much liberal atmosphere. We got back to our hotel exhausted just by the sight of the craziness. We decided to save our energy and avoid the party scene until New Years Eve. We spent the rest of our days there snorkeling, relaxing at the beach and exploring the surrounding hills. 

It was a good decision, because New Years Eve was fun and insane. The party began just a few steps away from our hotel. The first thing we came across was a line of nearly 30 ‘Aussie Bars’—circular, open-air bars with a scantily-clad barmaid or two tending to swarms of customers under flashing strobe lights and blaring techno. Each bar played its own music erupting in an intelligible cacophony that poured into the surrounding streets. We chose one bar at random. Jenn sat down on the barstool and ordered her favorite: a fresh mojito. Rolando ordered a Singha (Thailand’s local beer) and joined in a game of hammer and nail with some locals. It went like this: a line of nails stand on a stump, and you swing to hit the nails on the head with the BACK, narrow side of the hammer. The first person to fully sink all their nails wins. This could be quite a challenge after one has had a few drinks. Turns out it was quite a challenge for Rolando while sober 😃 (Editor’s note: You try swinging at nails with the back of a hammer. Not a walk in the park.)

After that we followed the crowds to the center of town, where the street lined with bars and ran perpendicular to the beach. Every bar was absolutely packed with happy people waiting to ring in the New Year. Street vendors sold flashing head pieces and cans of silly string by the dozens. We inched our way toward the beach, ducking for cover from the flying silly string and engaging in our share of silly string sneak attacks. Once at the beach we nabbed a beer and sat down amongst the crowd of thousands overlooking the ocean. Hundreds of paper lanterns were lit and released into the sky, lighting it like a hundred stars rising into the night. At midnight we stood, counted down together, and cheered under the bursting fireworks.

2016 had been good to us; we promised each other we’d work to make 2017 even better.

 

Thai Jungle Trekking

With a record-breaking 32.5 million tourists visiting  in 2016 (the number tripled in the last 10 years), Thailand is becoming quite the tourist destination. What has resulted is a blessing and a curse: a wonderful tourist infrastructure has boosted the economy as lots of quality hotels and transportation options arose. However, there are places that (in our opinion) often exude an excessive “touristy” vibe—western restaurants everywhere, hoards of foreigners being herded into buses and boats in an impersonal, transactional manner.

To get out of the tourist hustle, we decided to take a three-day, two-night trek through the jungle of Chiang Mai with a company called "Piroon & Jitt.” We longed to go out and get to know the “real” Thailand. We were picked up from our hotel at the crack of dawn with nothing more than a small backpack with the items we’d need for our journey—clothes for two days, a towel, some bug spray. We hopped in the back of a truck and wound our way up the mountainside for nearly an hour. Our truck stopped in the middle of the jungle and our guide Sun told us we were ready to start our journey.

So the trek began up and down and through the jungle on a thin path worn in by the villagers who have journeyed here before us. Every once in a while we’d encounter a clearing in the trees that’d give way to a breathtaking view of bright green rice fields below. Along the road we saw giant spiders, termite mounds and well-worn highways of millions of ants winding as far as the eye could see. After hours of trekking we found ourselves in a remote village In the middle of one of Thailand’s national parks. The village was small—only about 30 wooden huts with no electricity or running water, each perched up on stilts. Below each house was a farm with roosters, chickens, pigs, cats and dogs. Our group would stay in one of the huts. We each got our own bed with mosquito net and we shared two toilets out back. The shower of choice was the river stream running in front of the house. After a refreshing dip, we watched the village kids play football (soccer) and ate a delicious Thai dinner by candlelight while learning about village life from Sun as we sat around a campfire.

We woke to the rooster crowing a 5:30 and set out for another three-hour trek through the jungle. We soon found ourselves next to a quickly rushing stream. Just down river rapids could be heard lapping briskly. At the stream’s edge were three 15-foot long rafts made entirely out of bamboo shoots tied together with reeds. Rolando was tossed a bamboo stick and quickly learned that along with our local captain he’d be the one “rowing" our raft. This frankly was no small feat as it required him to paddle and turn the boat amid the rocks and rapids on the stream. We're happy to report our raft stayed upright (and our luggage stayed dry) despite the fact that Jenn and another passenger slipped off the raft and dove halfway into the river as we passed one of the bigger rapids. The experience was thrilling. After an hour we found ourselves down stream at a small restaurant and were greeted by the majestic sight of two elephants standing guard near the river’s edge.

After a delicious meal of Ramen noodles, veggies and fresh fruit,  we walked down toward the river to spend time with the elephants. At first we fed them watermelon and pineapple rinds and giant stalks of sugar cane. Their giant muscular trunks reached out to grab each piece and quickly devoured them with a powerful snap. They were endlessly hungry. After lunch it was time for a bath. One elephant walked down to the river and kneeled down. We splashed around it pouring water on it’s back to clean off the dirt and grime that had accumulated. These were truly majestic creatures—much larger and more powerful than we had imagined.

Later we returned to our rafts and made our way to another remote village where we spent the night laughing and talking about our experiences with our friends from the tour. The next day we took the rafts out one last time winding down stream and ending just outside of Chiang Mai. When we got back our hotel that afternoon we took a hot shower (BLISS!) and immediately collapsed into bed as we took in the amazing couple days we’d just experienced.

 

Bangkok Fever

We arrived on our red eye from Munich at 6:00AM Bangkok time. After herding through customs at the airport, we popped out into public transportation just as rush hour was in full swing. Talk about jumping right into the true Bangkok experience. We moved from airport metro, to public metro, to the SkyTrain, all the while we were squeezed among the mass of locals hurriedly making their way to work. After an hour of transfer we found our hotel and took a much needed nap. When we awoke and ventured out again, we learned that the hurried pace we witnessed in the morning was not just a feature of rush hour—it was just Bangkok.

Bangkok is the epitome of sensory overload. As in many busy cities, horrible traffic is an unfortunate reality—there are flashing billboards and signs at every turn, sounds of cats and dogs, motorcycles, music from neighboring bars, people yelling, absolute opulence right next to absolute poverty. But in spite of all that (or perhaps because of it) Bangkok is amazing. It served as a wonderful introduction to South East Asia’s culture and traditions with all the comforts of the West (fancy hotels, access to any type of cuisine you could imagine, green parks) while adding more than a dash of the East (temples, long riverboats, crazy-looking food). Bangkok isn’t a place to sit down and relax… it’s a place to actively explore with an open mind. And that’s exactly what we did.

 

Temple Run

There are over 30,000 temples across the entire country of Thailand. And while they all offer something beautiful to look at, it’s quite possible for Westerners to get ‘templed out’ after the umpteenth visit. That said, we’d be remiss not to mention the temple visiting experience we had in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket as these visits added to our understanding of Thai culture and history. These beautiful buildings are simultaneous feats of architecture, galleries of art, keepers of history, political/military headquarters, and houses of worship. Here we’ll highlight just three of the dozens of temples we visited.

The first one we visited, Wat Phra Kaew ("The Temple of the Emerald Buddha") was one of the most jaw-dropping. This ornately decorated masterpiece was built on the grounds of the royal palace in Bangkok and houses the renowned Emerald Buddha which, as its name suggests, is a Buddha carved into a 66 cm block of jade. As you approach the temple you are struck by the ornate decoration, the orange and green tiled roof, the mosaic pillars, the looming golden towers and the gold leafed accents. The temple was built in the 18th century and is still used today for special religious ceremonies. Hopefully the pictures will share the beauty we observed in person.

Next up: A 46-meter-long giant golden Buddha just chilling. Wat Pho (The Temple of the Reclining Buddha) is another of Bangkok’s famous temples. We were mesmerized once we stepped into the building housing the reclining Buddha – it’s so huge! The Buddha laying on his side with his arm under his head and is said to represent Buddha passing into Nirvana after his death.

The last few temples were in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, which looks much like it did at its cultural height. Very few buildings populate its narrow streets, while temples peek above the rooftops. One such temple, Wat Chedi Luang, began construction in the 14th century and at 82 meters this brick tower was the tallest building in the entire city. It was partially destroyed in an earthquake and now stands at 60 meter, still peering over most buildings in Chiang Mai. While not as awe-inspiring as the gilded temples in Bangkok it is still a sight to behold.

As an added benefit, the monks who live at Wat Chedi Luang offer a daily ‘Monk Chat’ where you can sit one-on-one with a monk to learn about their lifestyle and beliefs. We talked to a man in his early 20s who moved from Laos to Chiang Mai to become a monk. This gave him access to a quality of education that wasn’t available to him back home. We learned that all practicing Buddhist males are expected to become monks for at least a few months during their lifetime, engaging in study, prayer, meditation, and abstaining from other ‘earthly pleasures’. They can choose to leave the monk-hood whenever they like.

This monk’s advice to us lay people? Learn and understand the Four Nobel truths of Buddhism, as a deep understanding of these can lead to a more content life.

Here are the Four Noble truths in a nutshell:

  1. We all experience dissatisfaction in life (sometimes translated as "suffering").
  2. This dissatisfaction stems from clinging to the past or craving things we don’t have.
  3. If we can stop this clinging/craving we can be truly happy.
  4. In practicing mindfulness (through meditation and other methods) we can learn to appreciate life as it is, in the present and ultimately be less dissatisfied.

For a simple, non-nonsense approach to the Buddhist philosophy (this can be surprisingly hard to find), we recommend the book “Buddhism Plain and Simple” by Steve Hagen.

— 

Next up: the magic of Cambodia, one of our favorite countries of the trip. Keep an eye out for the post!

Travel On,

Jenn & Rolando