2016 Recap – The Retirement Adventure Continues!
I am writing this on the last day of 2016, and I thought I would take some time to summarize and reflect a bit about the year that has passed and the continuing retirement travel adventure in general. Many people find it difficult to be cheerful about 2016 but, as we only live in the present, all we can do is be extra vigilant about making things better going forward. I am not a religious person, but I very much agree with the sentiments in the "Serenity Prayer."
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
In truth, 2016 was an excellent year for Sarah and me, and over five years in my enthusiasm for the lifestyle I have built for my retirement only gets stronger. No, this lifestyle isn't for everyone, but if you dream of releasing yourself from the shackles of convention, pushing your personal boundaries, fighting to overcome your fears and prejudices, seeing the world and living life as an adventure, I highly recommend that you take a look.
Sarah and I had been residing in Vientiane, Laos for about a year and we were beginning to discuss moving to a new home base somewhere out of Southeast Asia. We had grown to love Laos, had settled in well, and made many friends, but our house didn’t feel like a home. The place was nice enough, but it was too big, there were no views, and it was out of the city center. Almost everything we enjoyed doing required a commute of some sort. With our lease up, decision time was upon us. We knew exactly what we wanted for a house; modern construction, in a charming neighborhood with a mix of locals and expats, on the Mekong River, outdoor sitting areas, a garden for Biscuit (the cat) and Angel (the dog), and room for an office for me.
Long story short, Sarah found a real estate broker who found us the perfect place that met all of the requirements. It was a bit more expensive than we had hoped, but we figured living in a home with views, in a neighborhood that we liked, with restaurants and shops within walking distance and comfortable outdoor living spaces, we would be saving money. Sitting here now, looking out of my office window at the activity on the river, I know we made the right decision.
With the housing situation settled Sarah and I decided to kick back a bit and enjoy our new digs. It was fun getting into the rhythm of a new neighborhood. A typical day starts before sunrise with the sound of roosters and the chanting of local monks doing their morning alms rounds. We usually take breakfast and coffee on the upstairs balcony. Later, I work on my photos or writing projects for a few hours, before we decide whether to have lunch or dinner at a restaurant.
There are four neighborhood Buddhist temples, several simple restaurants - serving mostly noodles, satay, and beer - a local wet and dry market as well as banks, petrol stations, and convenience stores within a ten-minute walk. I don't want to give the impression that our home is an enclave of western living forced into a Laotian community. Yes, our house is modern, but the roads are dirt, the bars and eating places on the river are wooden shacks, and the locals still play boules on courts scratched out by hand on the side of the road.
For some insane reason, several months back, Sarah and I had decided that we were going to raise money for one of our favorite charities, Action Aid, by running in the London Marathon, upcoming in April. With the event being less than two months away, our training distances were beginning to get lengthy. February in Southeast Asia is also the burning season, with the rice farmers burning their dry fields before the monsoons, and it is also one of the hottest months as well. Also, the roads in Laos, with all the stray dogs, potholes, and traffic, are not the best places to need to get up early at 5 AM to avoid the heat and run a casual 30 kilometers. We decided to find some housesitters and, imitating serious runners, go someplace conducive to training. We decided to go to Taiwan for a month.
For 30 days we trained almost every day, circumnavigated the entire island by public transportation, ate some of the best sushi and sashimi I have ever had, watched the ocean, climbed mountains, and interacted with some of the kindest, most helpful people I have ever encountered. (People would help us buy tickets in train stations, store clerks would call English speaking friends on their phones to help interpret our needs and often a request for directions on the street was answered with, "follow me.") We stayed in everything from simple country guesthouses, urban AirBnBs, luxury hotels and everything in between. We even managed to fit in two half-marathons in preparation for London.
We spent the first few weeks of April in Vientiane putting the finishing touches on our marathon training. Okay, it was more like running around Laos sweating and swearing at ourselves for agreeing to do the run. If Taiwan gave us confidence, the springtime heat and smoke in Laos beat it out of us. We were excited, but we were also feeling a bit of dread about running 26.2 miles in the unpredictable London weather. There was also something else on our minds that I have left out up until this point; two days after London we were to fly to France to celebrate Sarah's birthday and then begin walking 750 kilometers across Spain on the Camino de Santiago.
When we arrived into London the weather was pretty dismal; cold, rain, even a bit of sleet. The forecast on marathon morning was for snow. Sarah's sister took us to a thrift shop, and we bought some sweatshirts to wear at the beginning of the race and then discard along the route. We had our running gear and bibs on under our coats for our commute on the train to Greenwich for the beginning of the race, but by the time we arrived at the starting pen, clouds were beginning to give way to blue skies and the temperature was moderating.
I can't say that we broke any records, but as Sarah says, "We didn't come in last, and we didn't get lost." It was energizing hearing the crowds shout my name ("JON" was written in large letters across my shirt) as I struggled through the different London neighborhoods and it dragged me forward. It was fun running with the crowds around London's most famous monuments and seeing friends and family along the way. It was a relief when we finally finished, tired, sore and moderately blistered, but we were only a few days into our six-week adventure.
After meeting up with friends for a few pints and pub meals, and saying our goodbyes, it was time to fly to France. We allowed a few days for marathon recovery in Saint Jean Pied du Port, a quaint and historic little town that is one of the traditional starting points for the Camino de Santiago, but surprisingly, after just a bit of rest, we were well recovered. We celebrated Sarah's birthday at a beautiful little restaurant with much wine and too much delicious, hearty, French food. I even decided to dust off some of my old French and try it out on the waiter. I didn't get what I expected, but I never knew lamb pancreas and pimento could be so delicious.
It may seem strange to say it out loud, but any journey, whether to the local grocery or across a whole country begins at the beginning. Sarah and I had breakfast at the little Bed and Breakfast we were staying in, put on our backpacks and started walking. We were of course very excited, but we also knew we had made the time to savor the experience. All we had to do was follow the arrows and enjoy the journey. I won't go into too much detail here. There is a crudely written daily diary of our walk on the Camino de Santiago on LifePart2.com.
We arrived back into Vientiane, the second week of June, just as rowing practice for the Dragon Boat races was beginning. Every evening competitors from our neighborhood would drag their long, skinny boats into the Mekong to practice their timing and strengthen their bodies. We got used to hearing the cadence coming from the river echoing through the house as the sun set over the river. Surprisingly their practice would sometimes carry on far into pitch blackness long after twilight had passed.
Two or three evenings a week we started to take Angel to one of the local, no name, restaurants/bars to watch rowing practice, see the sunset and have a beer and a snack. She soon started to figure out that the setting sun and the rhythmic counting of boaters coming from the river meant an evening stroll and satay. She soon became a celebrity at the plank and bamboo shack, with locals announcing loudly "nang fa!", which supposedly means "sky goddess," as we arrived for a beer. Angel, who used to be known as "psycho pup," is starting to settle into life here on the river. The no-name pub is now becoming know by local and expats alike as "Angel's Bar."
June was also the month that I agreed to join the board of "Soap 4 Life," a Laotian, hands-on humanitarian organization that empowers rural women by promoting hygiene and economic development by training them to make soap, as "Director of Communications and Public Affairs." I believe in "Soap 4 Life" because it is a small, grassroots organization whose day to day operations are run by locals and permanent residents with a real stake in Laos. You can learn more about "Soap 4 Life," here, here, and here.
If this is July, this must be Hong Kong. A few month back, Sarah and I had agreed to return to Hong Kong, do some petsitting and look after "Tang," for a couple that we had found through Trusted Housesitters. Sarah and I both love Hong Kong, with its rustic neighborhoods shouldered next to glimmering skyscrapers, and returning was like seeing an old, familiar friend. Since the place we were looking after was in a desirable area right on Hong Kong island, we were able to hike to Victoria Peak, with its fantastic views of the harbor without using public transportation.
We ate in some amazing restaurants and cafes, wandered the old neighborhoods, shopping malls, and beaches. I flew away to the United States for ten days (slept in a capsule hotel in Japan en route)while Sarah continued to watch Tang and joined a hiking group where she met more new friends and explored some of the outlying territories and islands. I had a good visit with family in Texas and returned to join up for some hikes with some of the people Sarah had met while I was away. It is funny; there are becoming more and more cities in the world where we could be plunked down in the middle, find some old favorites, and know our way around without having to consult a map. I am happy that, for us, Hong Kong is now one of those familiar cities.
I have always liked to cook and spending time in the kitchen. I can usually rummage around the cupboards and find enough ingredients to put together a reasonable meal. If we have been to the market recently and have proper meats, vegetables, and a few spices, I can, if I do say so myself, make some pretty fine meals.
This month I decided to experiment and try my hand at making some various things. I made Oatmeal Honey Vodka (pretty good, not great), Sweet Tea Vodka (pretty great), and homemade mustard (passable). I also tried roasting some fresh Laotian Bolaven Plateau coffee beans in a popcorn popper, but the popper didn't seem to get hot enough to make a proper dark roast. Next time I have some downtime, I will try a few more things. Or maybe, just make Sweet Tea Vodka, sit on the balcony, and watch the sunset.
Toward the end of August, we accepted a week long pet-sitting job, watching two cats, on the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand. We had access to a small scooter, and we used it to explore every nook and cranny of the small island. We stayed only a few hundred meters from the beach, and we took evening strolls there whenever we could. The food was good and cheap; the scenery was incredible, and the locals were friendly and helpful. What more could you want?
Sarah and I left Koh Lanta, spent the weekend in Bangkok, then she returned to Vientiane while I flew off to Istanbul to visit Turkey and Greece for three weeks. These were two places that I had wished to visit but had never been.
Istanbul is one of the most visually stunning cities I have ever visited. Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Bosphorus Straits were all places that I had heard of and seen photographs of, but I learned that it requires a visit if you want to experience these places in a genuine way. I know Istanbul, and Turkey, in general, has been getting a lot of negative press lately, but I found it to be charming, friendly and very accessible. I wandered everywhere from the Egyptian Market to Sultanahmet, alone, openly carrying an expensive camera, and at no moment did I fell unsafe. I ate street food; I walked along the riverfront; I wandered in the Grand Bazaar and never had a problem. By using common sense and reasonable precautions, I was rewarded with new sights, sounds, tastes and aromas at every turn.
From Istanbul, I flew to Izmir and rented a car so I could drive up the coast and visit Ephesus. After spending one night in the tacky English beach holiday town of Kusadasi, I let my better instincts take hold and drove to the much more charming town of Selçuk. I loved it here! Only two miles for Ephesus, Selçuk is itself filled with ancient ruins, aqueducts, and castles. Okay, I wasn't able to get second rate Fish and Chips or watch football on a big screen, but the Turkish food was delicious, plentiful and cheap, the streets were filled mostly with locals instead of sunburned tourists, and there were no disco sounds beating on you until all hours of the morning. If you ever had to choose between Kusadasi or Selçuk when visiting Ephesus, to me, choose Selçuk; it is no contest.
Ephesus itself was one of the most incredible and humbling places I have ever visited. I still need to write more about the place but, for now, I will just leave this slideshow.
After Ephesus, I returned the rental car to the airport and flew to Kayseri so I could explore Cappadocia. Here I rented another car and drove to Uchisar where I slept in one of the most unique and luxurious places I have ever stayed; the Taskonaklar Cave Hotel. I hiked among the hoodoos and fairy chimneys in Pigeon Valley, took in a Turkish bath, flew in a hot air balloon and even took a Turkish cooking course.
From Cappadocia, I flew back to Izmir to stay down the Cesme peninsula in the charming beach town of Alaçati. I had not heard of Alaçati before, but I had a perfect time staying with my new friends Levant and Aysun at their hotel the Luce Design. I went to the beach, ate far too much food at the Ali Seafood Restaurant on the harbor, went on a sunset sail with their friends, and again, gorged myself on fresh, homemade, organic food and wine at Noni's Restaurant nearby in the hills. It was a perfect 36 hours before leaving Turkey, and it makes me long to go back, not only to visit my friends but to explore more of Turkey.
Note: Again, I know Turkey has gotten a lot of bad press lately, and I was aware of the issues before I left for my trip. I studied the news, weighed my options and made an informed decision about traveling there. Statistically, you have no more risk of troubles in Turkey than you do in many other, less newsworthy, places. Allowing a few bad actors to dissuade us from visiting a place is giving them precisely what they want and handing them a victory. I refuse to live in a world where irrational fear dictates my movements and my plans. Terrorism works because WE, YES WE, allow it to. If I had not gone to Turkey, I would have missed out on a highly memorable and educational trip. If you want to stick it to the terrorists, visit Turkey. It is lovely without the crowds, and it is very much on sale.
I left Turkey for Greece via a ferry from the old town of Cesme. I arrived on the island of Chios late at night and without a place to stay. Winging it, in this case, was a bad move because most of the hotels on Chios were full due to aid workers filling the hotels, presumably there to help handle in influx of Syrian refugees. I only stayed on Chios one night before deciding to fly to Athens, but I learned a valuable lesson. (No, not to plan better, but that would have been helpful in this case.)
I saw many "aid workers" standing around on street corners in Chios, with nothing to do, clogging up the hotels, using up all the rental cars and, although well intentioned, being mostly in the way. These "volunteers," many with no skills, had taken it upon themselves to fly to far away Chios, to cook, serve meals and wash dishes for refugees. Noble yes; but not at all helpful. Refugees are people escaping a horrific situation, not incapable of looking after themselves. Before Chios, I would have looked at these "volunteer aid tourists" as selfless people wanting to help. Now, after seeing things first hand, I see that unless you have a specialized skill that can be useful in a crisis, if you actually want to help, instead of spending a ton of money to show up somewhere unsummoned intent on helping; send the money instead of sending yourself.
Athens was an eclectic mix of wonders; ancient and modern. I booked ahead and stayed with a lively family in their AirBnB. The neighborhood at first seemed a bit grungy, but after injecting myself into the city, I realized that this was rather typical of Athens and I began to see it as part of the charm. Although public transportation and Uber is available in Athens, I decided, with few exceptions, to walk everywhere I went. I walked to the top of the Acropolis, a few times, to see the Parthenon. I ate in the city's upscale bistros and neighborhood joints. I visited a few of the first-rate museums and wandered through contemporary areas only to stumble upon yet another ancient wonder.
From Athens, I spent an hour on the high-speed ferry known as the "Flying Dolphin" to get to the island of Poros, which was only a two-minute water taxi ride to the Peloponnese village of Galatas. After a short taxi ride up the hill, I saw my AirBnB and immediately fell in love. From my quiet, ultra modern bedroom, I could look across the water and see several Greek islands. Birds were singing, the flowers were in bloom and the proprietress, Penelope was in the kitchen frying fresh eggplant with herbs and garlic. The aroma was intoxicating. I only had reservations for two nights, but before I opened my suitcase I told Penelope that I wanted to stay two more nights; until the end of my trip.
Penelope was a cross between a fantastic hostess and a Greek grandmother. (She is, of course, way too young to be my grandmother or even my mother, but she gave off that vibe.) She introduced me to her many friends and immediately brought me into her clan. I had been in Galatas for less than a day and already felt at home. There are places that are funny that way.
One day I went to work with George who is a tax collector on the island of Hydra and spent the day walking down the narrow alleyways and climbing the hills to get unrestricted views of the Aegean sea. On another night, George drove us to their favorite restaurant which is located in an old gas station. We met up with other friends and ate fresh roasted lamb, tiny fish, and prawns fried in olive oil - that you eat whole - batter coated fried squid, grape leaf wrapped dolmades, grilled octopus, and other dishes too numerous to mention all served with tzatziki, pita bread and far too much wine and ouzo.
The next day we met up Yanni, from the meal the night before, who runs an organic farm. He showed us around while picking produce fresh from the vine, which he cut up and offered for us to eat raw. Later we all sat around in near the farm fields, watched the sun set and I listened to these old friends talk about how much they loved their life in the Peloponnese. I promised Penelope that one day I would bring Sarah to visit. She said we should come there to live. I am not sure if she knows how tempted I am to take her up on her offer.
I arrived back into Vientiane just in time for the neighborhood Dragon Boat racing finals. It was strange seeing our otherwise quiet dirt street on the riverbank transformed into something that is best described as a carnival. Every few feet there was another game booth, food stand or market stall. The races were announced over huge, ear shattering, loudspeakers, and the crowds were very enthusiastic whether they understood what was being said or not. The start was at Angel's Bar, just upriver from our house and the finish was at the second Buddhist temple downriver. We couldn't have been in a better location, but we are both thankful that this is a once a year event.
October not only brings cooler weather to Laos, but it also marks Boun Awk Phansa or the celebration of the last day of Buddhist Lent. Very similar to Loi Krathong in Thailand, the festival is gorgeous in that, among other things; tiny boats are crafted out of banana leaves, filled with offerings such as sticky rice and small coins, decorated with flowers, candles, and sparklers, which a sent downstream. From what I understand the little craft are supposed to bring you luck and wash your troubles downstream.
There are also candlelit processions of worshipers around the temples, much chanting by the monks and usually some fireworks. It is all quite beautiful, and Sarah and I participated by sending our own offerings downriver. So far, everything appears to be working.
Another place we like to visit is Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and early in the month, Sarah found us a short housesitting gig there looking after two small dogs. KL is one of those places that, while not terribly exciting, is a fun place to visit, a good alternative to Bangkok for catching up on shopping and has a pretty good food and arts scene. We were keen to take this job because our friends were there just finishing up a housesitting job of their own and we were happy to meet up with them again. We had a great time touring around Bukit Bintang, catching up with each other and checking out the restaurants and bars.
In kind of a deja vu from September, when we said our goodbyes, Sarah and I flew off to Bangkok, from where she went back to Vientiane. I flew to Delhi, India where I joined up with a company I have been working with, On the Go Tours, for a trip they call "Highway to the Himalayas." Instead of repeating everything here you can read about the first portion of the journey from Delhi to Varanasi, India here. After Varanasi, we crossed into Nepal and visited Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, Chitwan National Park, Pokhara and finished in Kathmandu.
I stayed on a few days after the Highway to the Himalayas tour to explore Kathmandu and on December 1st, I took a sightseeing flight with Yeti Air, around Mount Everest. On of the problems with travel, if you can call it a problem, is that act of traveling never gets wanderlust out of your system. In reality, it makes it worse.
After I left Nepal, Sarah met me in Bangkok for a long weekend. Bangkok is one of those cities I was talking about, like Hong Kong, where we know our way around and don't go to see the sights, but to relax, take in a movie, try some new (or familiar) restaurants and just be.
The rest of December was in Vientiane catching up with friends, going to a few parties, relaxing on the balcony, reading, playing with Biscuit and watching Angel. Our friends had a big fried turkey Christmas Day blowout, and there were a few pre-New Year events. By the time New Year's Eve rolled around Sarah, and I decided to stay home, drink some wine and just be.
We have some big plans in 2017, including moving the retirement adventure to a new continent. If you have made it this far, I see that I have written over 4,000 words on this piece (it was just going to be a photo essay when I sat down), will you please follow along with us on next year's journey? Sarah and I both believe life is about growth and expanding comfort zones we plan to expand on that in 2017.
Also published on Medium.