Judy & Jason Are Moving to Jordan to Work for CRP!

A little more than three years ago, we met a Syrian family living in a tomato field in a small town in Jordan. Their daughter had been studying in Paris but came back to live with them in a plastic tent. Their two adult sons were missing—they’d been arrested back in Syria and hadn’t been heard from since. They shared their tea and their food with us. They wanted to cook meat for us, but we made excuses so that they wouldn’t use their rations on us.

In Amman, we met another family, who had been given housing through the Collateral Repair Project, which our friend Amanda runs. After their house had been bombed, they fled through the desert with their unconscious daughter. CRP found them and besides housing, got their daughter medical treatment and into school.

Jordan has taken in a million refugees. But only 17% of them live in camps. While they are welcome in Jordan, they aren’t allowed to work. That’s where CRP comes in. They find families in Amman and they give them food vouchers, school supplies, and housing. To try to rebuild community and deal with the PTSD these survivors face, CRP provides classes: everything from English to yoga to courses on gender-based violence.

So when Amanda asked us to come to Amman and run CRP’s marketing team, we said O.K.! Because Jordanian law forbids non-Jordanian nonprofits to fund raise in Jordan, 70% of CRP’s funding comes from individual donors in the U.S. There are 500 families currently on their wait list. Our job will be to increase donations. We’ll be doing what we do best so CRP can do what they do best.

A lot of people have asked us: How? Right now we’ve applied for a grant that would give us $1,000 a month, with the stipulation that CRP would match that. Whether we get the grant or not, we’re still going. Today we launched a fundraiser to help CRP match those funds. If we don’t get the grant, this money will be in place of that grant and CRP will still match it.

Obviously we won’t be putting any money into retirement during this time, but our goal is to at least not dip into our savings more than necessary. Through our work, your donations will be amplified over the next year.

We leave on June first. We’re renting out our house again (and our cats are coming with us!) and we’re giving our car to a friend so he can work on his own art. We’ve committed to going for a year, maybe two.

Ways you can help:

  • DONATE TO OUR FUNDRAISER HERE or share it through social media.
  • If you’re in Seattle, consider coming by and helping us weed our yard or paint our porch.
  • Come visit us in Amman and bring us Clif Bars.


Who Has the Best Coffee?

By J.T.

Now that we're back, Jason and I have been going through our photos, reminiscing, and playing a game (one that we've actually been playing for a long time), about the "best" of everything.

The best hostel is, without a doubt, The Greenbackpackers in Mitzpe Ramon, Israel. The best burger is at Fatty Dab's in Amman, Jordan. The best backpacker town is Ella, Sri Lanka.

You get the idea.

Mr. Vieng's coffee plants near Pakse, Laos.

Mr. Vieng's coffee plants near Pakse, Laos.

But the best cup of coffee is harder to quantify. Coffee varies depending on the type of drink its brewed into. Watch, I'll ask Jason right now.

"Probably the egg coffee in Vietnam, or Mr. Vieng's near Pakse, Laos. Or that coffee near where we stayed the second time we were in Bangkok. Or the coffee in Copenhagen."


Alright, let me break it down. In Hanoi, a few shops make "egg coffee" where the normal thick, strong, Vietnamese coffee-and-sweetened-condensed-milk combo is topped with a frothy blend of egg yolk and more sweetened condensed milk. It tastes like coffee-flavored cookie dough. It might be the best thing about Vietnam.

In Pakse, in southern Laos, we rented a motorbike and went on a three-day drive. Along the way, we stopped to see Mr. Vieng, a local coffee-grower and member of the Katu tribe. We purchased a cup of coffee from him and toured his farm. His coffee was not exactly Laos-style, but it wasn't a regular cup of drip coffee either. He grew both Arabica and Robusta varieties, and served them with sugar rather than sweetened condensed milk. Mr. Vieng told us that he only sold coffee to tourists now, as he could make more money selling a specialty batch directly to the consumer than to coffee giant Dao Coffee as he used to do. We sampled a lot of coffee on that loop, but none was as good as his.

We stopped here every morning either to or from the noodle shop a few doors down.

We stopped here every morning either to or from the noodle shop a few doors down.

The second time we were in Bangkok, we'd met up with our friend, Justin, and were staying in the Sukhumvit neighborhood. Near our hostel was a stand called "I (Heart) Coffee" where they served coffee sourced from Northern Thailand but made into Western drinks. Jason started every morning with an Americano from there.

The best Western-style coffee was probably at Cafe 9 in Copenhagen, where I had a flat white that was out of this world. One of the only times I worked for money while traveling was sitting in that coffee shop, tagging recipes for Modernist Cuisine at Home, and that got me through it.

At the time this picture was taken, I might have said this unassuming flat white was the best coffee of my life.

At the time this picture was taken, I might have said this unassuming flat white was the best coffee of my life.

But there's more to any food experience than just the food itself. The prettiest coffee was in Israel (as was the best hot chocolate). I was thrilled to be able to order a "skinny decaf latte" at Turtle Green in Amman, Jordan, something that most coffee shops except for Starbucks don't seem to have outside of the U.S. We were surprised to stumble into a cool and quirky little coffee shop in Lexington, KY called Third St. Stuff and Co. At the Coffee Bean in Plymouth, MI, the old haunt of our high school days, Jason and I reenacted the time we ran into each other during Junior year and started speaking to each other again.

A lot of the time, the best is hard to narrow down. While the examples of the best hostel, etc. above are easy for us, sometimes its hard. With so many different experiences around the world, meeting so many different people from different cultures and circumstances, it's hard to say. Who had the best laugh? Which long trek was the most rewarding? Of which moment are we the most proud? What was the craziest thing that happened?

We can't even decide which coffee was best, so we'll probably never get to the bottom of our list. But we'll be discussing it for the rest of our lives.

When in the Desert...

By J.T.

The desert felt like home. Not just because of our time in the desert last summer, but because of all of our travels in the Middle East and Morocco. The arid weather, the bright sun, the dust, the barren landscape and weird rock formations made our hearts happy (until we got to the Mojave later...man is that an ugly desert).

And so, we did what felt, to us, totally normal. We sat down and had tea.

There's nothing like tea in the desert.

There's nothing like tea in the desert.

We were in Monument Valley, on the Navajo reservation, which is the sort of place one drives through rather than hikes. So, since we had all of our supplies in tow, we got out or Jetboil, water, sugar, and Lipton's black tea.

Arabs drink their tea super strong and super sweet. In all of our time there I haven't seen anything but Lipton's black tea, except for Morocco where they drink an admittedly far superior blend of fresh mint and gunpowder green tea. Then they "sugar the shit out of it" as we've taken to saying. We actually can't drink it as sweet as they prefer, for reasons of both health and taste. Sometimes it's more like hot sugar water and less like a nice cuppa. Once I asked someone, I think in Egypt, if there was a high rate of Diabetes in the country and he thought about it and said that yes, come to think of it there was.

We really hoped that we would see some Arab tourists who we could offer some tea to, as they would have surely done for us, but we didn't, so we had the whole pot to ourselves.

The scene wouldn't be complete without the obligatory "Serious-but-sexy-Arab-Facebook-Photo" shot.   

The scene wouldn't be complete without the obligatory "Serious-but-sexy-Arab-Facebook-Photo" shot.


One Day in Hong Kong

By J.T.

We booked our flight from Saigon to Chicago, which included one very long layover in Hong Kong. We arrived to HK late at night, and headed to a hostel we'd booked in advance. Compared to the places we have been the last few months, Hong Kong is expensive. Think American prices. And not small-town America. Big city America. We paid around $40 for the night, which included a bed in the smallest room we've ever stayed in, and a shared bathroom. But that's all we needed.

Hong Kong in the morning.

Hong Kong in the morning.

As congested and futuristic as Hong Kong seems, we found it surprisingly slow to start in the morning. We spent the first few hours walking around the city, as flower and bird vendors set up for the day. Then it was on to my main mission for the day: dim sum.

Steamed rice sheets filled with bbq pork.

Steamed rice sheets filled with bbq pork.

A few days before our arrival, I'd turned to Trip Advisor to find the best dim sum spot in Hong Kong. I selected One Dim Sum, ranked #8 out of 4,581 restaurants in the city. We arrived before it opened, and took our place at the end of the long line of locals waiting outside.

We were seated in a cramped corner--One Dim Sum focuses a lot more on food than space--and given a paper placemat menu. I'd done a little research, and knew that One Dim Sum had a Michelin star, so everything would be good, but some options were recommended over others, namely the the steamed rice sheet rolls.

We had the steamed rice sheet rolls with pork, and while the pork itself was average, the steamed rice sheets were superb. They were tender and a little chewy, but not tough or sticky. Another stand-out were the chiu chow-style dumplings, made of a soft, yielding dough, and filled with shrimp and greens.

We'd eaten at Tim Ho Wan in Singapore, also run by a Michelin-starred chef, and it was fun to compare the two. Overall, I think we preferred Tim Ho Wan, but the best of One Dim Sum could easily go toe-to-toe with the best of Tim Ho Wan.

Chiu Chow-Style!

Chiu Chow-Style!

We spent a total of 149 Hong Kong dollars on 7 dishes, which is just shy of $20. A good price for dim sum, but again, compared to what we'd been spending of food recently, a bit of a sticker shock.

So then it was on to find some entertainment somewhere on the spectrum of cheap-to-free.

We took the subway down to Hong Kong Island, where we walked along the water, and watched a helicopter land and then take off again. Did I mention that this is a money-centric city?

We were flying blind, with no guidebook and no internet. But we found a map of the area, and headed to a park. Amongst all the skyscrapers, an immense green space opened up. We wandered through the park, past men and women in suits on their lunch break, and a private yoga lesson, until we discovered a (free!) bird sanctuary.

I'm glad to see the city of the future has included a lot of trees!

I'm glad to see the city of the future has included a lot of trees!

While these birds were technically captive, these were not like the pets in small bamboo cages we'd seen in shops earlier in the day. These birds had the room to soar. A boardwalk was set up at mid-level and high above was a net, to keep the birds in. Pieces of fruit were set up near the boardwalks to keep both the birds and watchers happy (they got food, we got to see them). The birds looked pretty happy and healthy.

These birds are saying "omnomnomnom."

These birds are saying "omnomnomnom."

We also stopped in on a botanical garden and greenhouse and art gallery in the park. The greenhouse included species from all over Asia, including the largest lilly pads I've ever seen, and rare orchids.

Then it was time to think about heading back to the airport, and on to America.

Grasshoppers: Nutritious and Delicious

By  J.T.

In Luang Prabang, Laos, we asked for a different hike than most people take, something off the beaten path, both literally and metaphorically. Our willingness to take on something longer and more challenging afforded us many opportunities, from staying in the smallest village we've ever seen (only seven families) to really getting to know our guides.

I told our Hmong guides, Kaiying and Songpor, that I was a food writer and so I didn't want Western-style food. What they ate, I would eat. Frogs, bugs, whatever. If it was good enough for them it was good enough for me.

Gauntlet thrown.

Though they were too polite to say it, I get the feeling that they were skeptical and maybe were trying to find something I wouldn't eat. But they were also game and willing to tailor the hike to what I wanted.

We used an older basket with a plastic bag to contain the grasshoppers and crickets.

We used an older basket with a plastic bag to contain the grasshoppers and crickets.

Kaiying and Songpor spent a whole morning teaching us how to catch and cook grasshoppers and crickets. Experts as they were, they caught about ten times as many as we did (I only managed about a dozen).

From guns to pots and pans, most items in these villages are made by hand. So to capture the insects, Kaiying and Songpor twisted scrap wire into a hoop, and attached a plastic grocery bag, creating a net. To store them, they wrapped another plastic bag over an old basket.

We used the bag and hoop contraption to crash through the thick brush of the hillside, scooping up large specimens. They told that the bigger, greener bugs were preferable, but I was happy to find any at all. We also used our hands to pluck them out of their camouflaged hiding spots, coming up empty-handed as often as not.

So many times we came "this close" to catching a cricket "this big!" Like the fishermen who lament the one that got away, we were always shouting about the ones that bounced right out of our hands.

Bug or delicacy?

Bug or delicacy?

Kaiying would listen carefully and start digging with a sharp stick from time to time. He was hunting for a certain beetle-like bug with no English name. These, if bought in the market would have been a delicacy, costing around $1 for 3. Considering what most people in Laos make, that's actually a lot.

In the end, we had at least a gross of bugs. Next stop, the kitchen.

Kaiying heated an ungreased wok over the fire and tossed the grasshoppers and crickets right in. The bugs bounce around the hot pan once or twice, but then settle down, and by settle down, I mean roast and die. Those that managed to hop all the way out of the pan, Kaiying picked back up and tossed in again.

Kaiying roasting the bugs over a hot wok.

Kaiying roasting the bugs over a hot wok.

We also roasted the unidentifiable beetle-like bugs as well as a scorpion. These Kaiying held between two sticks tied together and set, still alive, near the coals the wok was placed over. I can see why the beetles were a delicacy. They had a rich nutty flavor. But the scorpion, novel as it was, mostly tasted like burnt exoskeleton.

To eat the crickets and grasshoppers, we pulled off the wings and front and middle legs, leaving the meaty abdomen, head, and back legs. They taste a little bit like popcorn. A tad oily, a tad burnt, with a satisfying crunch. The kind of thing that you can eat handfuls of without much thinking.

The delicious snacks are ready for eating.

The delicious snacks are ready for eating.

This village had no electricity, so there was no chance of sitting around and catching a matinee with our snacks. But that was o.k., because after a lunch of stew with whole, bone-in frogs, we had more hiking to do.

Over the next few days, Kaiying and Songpor found us grubs, other types of beetles, and a giant spider to eat. Of all of the creepy crawlies I ate, I think the grubs were the best tasting. Or maybe the spider. Really, they are all variants of the same thing, an oily richness, a mix between soft and crunchy, and a thrilling wow-factor.

Where Silk Comes from

By Jason

Inside these cocoons are silk worms. Before this point they've lived in a basket, were fed the freshest of mulberry leaves by diligent workers. Once they sense the time is right, they spin themselves right up into a lovely little yellow-white q-tip end.

Of course, from here things go a bit downhill, at least for the worm. Each of these will be boiled and then stretched out into skeins of silk, cleaned, dyed, woven and then sold. The worms aren't removed for this process, so in some ways this pile represents the pinnacle of the worms' achievements.

They are light and airy and stringy, with a strong color and unique texture. I find them quite beautiful, even in this state.

A Lingering Thought About Historical Preservation

The reason UNESCO denied Bagan World Heritage site, and the reason it will continue to deny it is that the government of Burma has reconstructed the sites using improper methods. They did not adhere to prevailing techniques for restoration and could possibly be accused of doing more harm than good in their efforts.

You can see clearly here how the several different building materials have been slapped together to "restore" this statue. The original stone sits against brick and mortar, and plaster coats the statue. The artist's ideals of what the statue should have looked like are imprinted in the plaster.

The GDP per capita in Burma is around $1,100 (per Wikipedia). The costs to do a proper restoration on over 2,000 13th century temples would be staggering.

If a place destroyed by time and neglect is restored, is it not already a creative effort? Is not any attempt at restoration counter to the narrative of the site? If a country is too poor to achieve a restoration that meets modern standards, are they then to keep their historical heritage in piles? Or do they have to receive international funds (and the strict stipulations that come with them) to do the restoration?

To whom does our history belong? To the people who live in a place? To the people who govern them? To the whole of humanity?

May I Suggest Cancelling Your Next Travel Plans and Going to Burma?

By J.T.

We didn't know what to expect from Burma (aka Myanmar). Guide books and websites from even a year ago were already out of date. While our SE Asia guidebook did give us some insight, we mostly relied on the scuttlebutt from other backpackers. We had heard things like you don't need crisp U.S. dollars anymore and that you can cross overland from other travelers, but we were still nervous as we boarded our flight.

We actually had booked a flight back to Bangkok, but since we were headed to Chiang Mai and were close to the border at the end, we decided to cross overland instead. We were a little bit nervous about this because while we had met people who had entered Burma that way, we hadn't met anyone who had crossed back. We crossed to Mae Sot, in Thailand, and the only tricky part was that the Burmese road leading to the border is so narrow that you can only go every other day. The other days are reserved for people coming the other way. At there border we encountered no problems or scams of any kind.

We didn't bring any U.S. dollars and we didn't need any. There were ATMs everywhere, and they all accepted foreign debit cards. One U.S. dollar is about 1,000 kyat, and since the largest bill is 5,000 kyat, this means carrying around a stack of bills, but that's the only problem there.

The Burmese national past time is putting Buddhas everywhere.

The Burmese national past time is putting Buddhas everywhere.

Getting from place to place is easy. I'd read that up until a few years ago, there were no tourist buses and people had to largely rely on flights. That is not the case any more. At every guesthouse, we booked our onward travel via bus. Some buses were great, some were horrible...about what you would expect from any country in SE Asia.

Normally we book transportation ourselves, rather than relying on a third party, and thus we avoid any mark-up. But the bus tickets, including long rides, were fairly cheap (around $15/person), and the commission usually only around $1. Maybe it's because there aren't yet a lot of tourists in Burma that there aren't a lot of scams. But we mostly found people to be honest and friendly (except of course, for taxi drivers, who are the worst everywhere).

We also didn't encounter any of the other bad sides of tourism so common in SE Asia. We didn't find tourists partying and acting like assholes, or any sex tourism. That might be there. We just didn't see it.

In fact, the biggest reason to go to Burma is not that there aren't a lot of people there yet, or that it's cheap and not as challenging as you might expect, but that the people are some of the friendliest people we've met anywhere.

Why have one temple when you could have 2,000?

Why have one temple when you could have 2,000?

In Hpa An, we rented a motorbike to tour the surrounding caves. We had a hand-drawn map that definitely wasn't to scale, and found ourselves lost quite a bit. Twice we stopped at a gas stand to ask for directions and twice someone got on their motorbike, drove ten minutes, and showed us where to go. Both times we reached into our pockets to take out a 1,000 kyat as a tip, which would be normal in most places, but both times our guide jumped on his bike, and, smiling, waved goodbye as he drove off before we could hand over the money.

In Yangon, I had a minor crisis with my new nose ring. A lady in a shop handed me tissue when it was bleeding, a concierge at a hotel (at which I was staying) gave me directions, and a guy at a salon solved my problem. This last I also offered money to and was rebuffed.

This isn't to say that nobody took money from us, but those that did were normally in a tourist-centered area, such as Bagan. Just as in Egypt, people would hang around some of the temples and unlock parts for tourists. We would tip 500 to 1,000 kyat, but got the feeling that if we didn't tip they wouldn't have minded much. Even in Bagan, our guesthouse gave us money back because they said they should have given us a low-season discount. This was just as we were leaving, so they certainly didn't have to do it if they didn't want to. They could have forgotten, or the guy at the desk could have pocketed the money, but they didn't.

Jason with two monks and a local kid.

Jason with two monks and a local kid.

We took a three-day hike through the countryside, where Jason struck up a conversation with a couple of monks walking in the same direction. Their English was pretty limited, but they were excited to talk to him. This is where the part about not seeing bad tourists comes into play again. People were genuinely happy to see us pretty much wherever we went. They smiled and waved constantly, which, for this Midwestern girl, was a highlight. In Thailand it's like locals are "over" the whole tourist thing. I get it. I feel the same way in Seattle all the time, and we don't even have sex tourists or horrible drunken people (except for Raiders fans, who can be really annoying).

So, if you are feeling adventurous, may I humbly suggest Burma?

The rest of the world will still be there. Get to Burma while they're still happy to see you.

Idiosyncrasies of Sri Lankan Mass

By J.T.

Part of the comfort of a Catholic Mass is supposed to be that, local language aside, it's the same wherever you go in the world. This is largely true, but details can be subject to change.

I'm not particularly religious, but I love religion. More importantly, I love ritual. So when I found myself in Negombo, a town in Sri Lanka with a high percentage of Christians, on Palm Sunday, my favorite mass of the year, I decided to go to church.

Earlier in the day, I sat in on a rosary. The idiosyncrasies began then and there. Everyone took their shoes off before entering the Church. Of course the prayers were said in Sinhalese (or maybe Tamil), but I noticed that most people, unlike me, did not come empty-handed. A statue of the Virgin Mary had been brought out, and almost everyone set a flower lei around her neck, so many that in the end you could hardly see her face. And they opened bottles of water, and placed them near the statue with the cap off.

Offerings of flowers and fruit are a big part of Sri Lankan Buddhism, so it's really no wonder that this carried over to Sri Lankan Catholicism. Think of it like the Pagan Christmas tree or stories of St. Bridget.

A fresco at the ancient site of Sigiriya. Fruit and flower offerings have long been a part of Sri Lankan Buddhism.

A fresco at the ancient site of Sigiriya. Fruit and flower offerings have long been a part of Sri Lankan Buddhism.

Later that day, when I attended Palm Sunday Mass at the Cathedral downtown, I noticed more and more peculiarities. Nobody lined up outside the church for the Palm Sunday procession, and palms were given out at the end of mass, rather than the beginning.

Let me note here, that Palm Sunday is the worst day to go to attend a mass in a foreign language. There is no singing. It's just the story of Jesus in Jerusalem, read straight from the Bible. While it is an exciting and emotional story, that's only true when it's in a language you understand.

As far as I could tell, the traditional Palm Sunday mass didn't diverge from what I'm used to. But there were other differences that could probably be found in Sri Lankan Catholic churches on any given Sunday. I noticed that during the Our Father, nobody held hands. Well, that's not too unusual; it's becoming less and less common in the U.S. as well. I think that people don't want to touch strangers any more. But while extending the sign of peace, nobody shook hands, either. Instead, everyone touched their hands together in a prayer position and made a quick bow to the person on the left and right of them. I fumbled a bit to imitate them, and said "peace be with you" in English.

When it came time to take communion, nobody lined up, row by row. Instead, people got up as they saw fit, from the front, back, and middle. They walked up to the altar and still didn't cue. It was a mass grouping. This was still church, so their wasn't any pushing or shoving, but cuts were definitely taken. When I got to the front of the clutch of people, I saw that everyone knelt to receive communion. And what's more, everyone received communion directly into their mouths. Now, I know that this used to be common practice, and I've seen elderly people receive communion this way, but I've never done so, and felt a little bit weird about it. So I held out my hands. But the old nun who was distributing the host would have none of that. So, reluctantly I opened my mouth and she set it on my tongue.

In my mind, I still believe that after church, if I was good, I should get a doughnut. It's ingrained into my brain. Maybe not a powdered sugar one, because those are messy and get powdered sugar all over the back seat of the car, but still, I should get one. Of course, there were no doughnuts to be had, but there was a cart out on the sidewalk selling short eats, Sri Lankan street food, of roti stuffed with spicy potatoes and little savory fried dough balls.  Close enough.

The Ubiquity of Falafel

By J.T.

Before I went to Israel, I read an online discussion about representative street foods of different countries. Doner Kebab, of course, is emblematic of Turkey. Pizza and gelato were both suggested for Italy. Hamburgers for America. And for Israel, falafel. Falafel? I thought. I love falafel, have eaten it for years, but have always thought of it as falling into that broad category we call Middle Eastern food.

Then I went to Israel. If there is one thing I’m sure of after spending nearly a month in this complicated country, it’s that falafel is Israel's most popular street food. It’s found in small shops and stands in every town, no matter how small, and ranges in price between 5 and 18 shekels (about $2-6). Made from a mixture of chickpeas, deep-fried, and stuffed into pita bread with tahini, salad, spicy sauce, it has all the merits of great street food: quick, filling, cheap, and delicious.

A bridge in Tel Aviv.

A bridge in Tel Aviv.

My surprise at the ubiquity of falafel in Israel is no surprise at all. Israel, I found, is the sort of country that one cannot prepare for by reading news reports, travel forums, or history books. While I knew that military service is required of all young adults, it can be shocking to see teenagers in uniform, carrying their guns with them as they go about their business. This means that I’ve sat near weapon-carrying soldiers on buses, stood in line next to them in grocery stores, and nearly bumped into said guns on busy street corners.

Military service is such a part of life for young people in Israel that those who have completed their service may speak of it nonchalantly. When I told one person I stayed with that I planned on crossing the border in Eilat to Aqaba, Jordan, he said, “Oh, I cleaned up landmines down there once,” as if saying that he once had a girlfriend living down there, or worked at an ice cream shop for a summer.

This same host told me stories of losing his religion after meeting people and being exposed to other ideas while in the military. As much as modern politics are omnipresent in Israel, so are very real religious concerns. My host’s roommate had left his ultra-Orthodox faith, which meant he had to leave his community and family as well. Buses end just before sundown on Fridays and don't start up again until the sabbath is over. Jerusalem is brimming with religion, from ancient sites to living, breathing pilgrims.

Religion and military service collide on Sundays, when members of the military are shuttled back to bases, stopping for cultural excursions along the way. They are taken to places like the Israel museum, or historical sites like Masada, where, legend has it, a few hundred troops held off the Roman army before killing themselves rather than surrendering. They are told that this is the cultural legacy they are trying to protect. The world has been trying to wipe the Jewish people out of existence for nearly 2,000 years, and but they won't let it. They're not wrong, of course.

The ancient bricks of Masada.

The ancient bricks of Masada.

Our Couchsurfing hosts in Tel Aviv gave us a piece of advice when we first arrived to Israel. "In Israel," they said, "you can do whatever you want until someone yells at you." And it's true! Jaywalk, take cuts, whatever. And if you are truly stepping out of line, someone will take it upon themselves to correct you.

But you know what? This rule doesn't just apply to Israel. It applies to the Middle East in general. Once in Amman, Jordan, we saw a man get out of his car, move a roadblock, and get into an argument with a police officer over it.

Like this rule, other rules found in Israel apply elsewhere in the Middle East. Namely, the ubiquity of Falafel. We found it in Turkey, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt. In fact, Jordanians proudly told me that the world record for biggest falafel was set in Amman, and Egyptians told me that it was invented in Cairo.

Sometimes it feels like Israel exists in its own bubble. Like an ostrich putting its head in the sand, the entire country of Israel refuses to see itself mirrored in the predominantly-Muslim countries around it. The thing that separates Israelis from Palestinians the most is that they don't interact with each other. And since they don't interact with each other, they don't see that, religion aside, they are more the same than not. Arabs and Israelis could both be described as "hot-headed," quick to ignite. They both have a "do-what-you-want" attitude. They both are shrewd negotiators, stubborn, and proud. But they are both some of the most compassionate, generous people on earth. They are the sort of people that you want to sit with over a cup of tea and feel welcomed.

Yet, Israelis go to great lengths to distance themselves from their neighbors. They put up walls, both literal and metaphorical. There's a sign, when you cross from Israel into Palestine, written in Hebrew, Arabic, and English that Israelis caught on that side of the wall will be killed. When we told one of our hosts that we were going to Bethlehem, he ruefully noted that he couldn't go there. It's only a few miles from his home in Jerusalem, but he'd never seen it.

The Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem.

The Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem.

I expected to find chicken noodle soup and brisket on restaurant menus, but rather than European Jewish stapels, I found more generally Middle Eastern, hummus, baba ghanouj, fuul, and of course, falafel. Israelis go to such lengths as to call this "Moroccan" or "Yemeni" food, brought over from the historic Jewish populations of those countries.

Typical Israeli food.

Typical Israeli food.

I wondered, though never asked, if they knew that the rest of the world calls this "Middle Eastern" food.


By Jason

Her name is Zainab. With her friends she walks up and down the boardwalk in Dahab selling bracelets and making small talk with the tourists. Her English is great and her personality is infectious. One day she sat down with us at the cafe overlooking Lighthouse and played with my camera.

She got a lot of silly shots of me, and of me playing backgammon with her friend.

She did not ask us to buy that day. We spent an afternoon together, and when we were finished with our game they went along their way.

Clandestine Petra by Night

By J.T.

I had heard about the hospitality of local Bedouins in and around Petra, but after so much hassling from dishonest hostel owners, lines of cab drivers, people selling horse, donkey, and camel rides, and kids hawking postcards, I had a healthy dose of skepticism. I figured that nothing in Petra came free and that perhaps Bedouin hospitality was a myth. Even when I met someone who had been invited to stay with a local she’d met on the bus ride into Wadi Musa, the town that sprung up outside of Petra, and said she was having a great time with her hosts, I still had my doubts.

But then I met Agab. On our third day in Petra, Jason and I hiked up past the royal tombs to get a glimpse of the Treasury, Petra’s most famous site, from above. Agab, a 22 year-old Bedouin, with wild hair, a missing front tooth, and a disdain for shoes, owns a small shop at the top of the trail, overlooking the rock-carved mausoleum. He gave us tea, free of charge, while we chilled out and ate our packed lunches. This was one of the most pleasant and peaceful spots we’d found in Petra. A place where we could relax in the sun and enjoy the view.

Resting in the sun at Agab's shop.

Resting in the sun at Agab's shop.

Even though it was only 2 o’ clock in the afternoon, Agab invited us to stay for dinner, and experience Jordan by Night, a program with singing and flute-playing wherein candles are used to gently light the Treasury. Still a bit skeptical, we asked how much he would charge. He said it would be 10 dinar (about $15) for the groceries, and that was it. How would we get down? It would be dark by the time we left. He’d bring us donkeys when he got the groceries. How much for the donkey ride? Free.

This was the exact sort of organic experience I’d been wanting, yet I could feel that I was becoming too jaded to accept it. But Jason wanted to try so I said ok.

Agab is a bit crazy by anyone’s standards—Western, Jordanian, or Bedouin. He told us that he could climb down to the ground below and back in 10 minutes. I urged him to prove it. So he dug out some old, battered sandals, and off he went, down the steep, zig-zagging trail, over boulders and around sharp hairpin turns. He reached the ground in four minutes, and was back up in another six. This act of craziness, which even his friends thought a bit daunting, endeared him to me. Not because of the recklessness of it, or because to him was less reckless having done it many times before, but because he seemed more like a man of his word. He said he could do it in 10 minutes, and he did.

Strictly speaking, what we were doing was illegal. Petra by Night is a separate ticket from the daytime entrance fee, and tourists are not supposed to stay inside the park with Bedouins after hours. To skirt around this, Agab asked his friend, Suleiman, a quiet 17-year-old kid, to take us farther up to watch the sunset while he went out for groceries and the park closed. Suleiman guided us up rocks and boulders to what must be the most spectacular sunset view in the area. I’d come to discover that Petra is a mix of two of my favorite things, history and hiking. From this view, we couldn’t see the ruins of Petra, but we could see the natural rock formations that made this area so formidable for centuries.

Back at Agab's shop, we peeked over the edge while they were setting up. It was now dark, but they must have heard us because they aimed a giant spotlight up at our location. Heart pounding, I ducked behind a boulder to keep out of sight.

I had given Agab a 20 dinar note, because we had initially thought that he meant 10 dinar each. This would be a little more than we had planned to spend on dinner, but thought it might be worth it. But when Agab came back, he brought me 10 dinar change.

With the 10 dinar, Agab bought juice, cookies, vegetables, and a frozen chicken. I estimate the chicken was about 3 dinar, the vegetables maybe another 2 at most, and the juice and cookies another 3 or 4. He might have kept what was left up to 10 dinar for himself, but I don't really begrudge him that.

By the light of the fire, I used a knife with no handle to help Agab chop the vegetables. We cooked it up the chicken and vegetables in a tinfoil packet.

Solid campfire food.

Solid campfire food.

Petra by Night was great, but I don't really remember it. The Treasury had a romantic glow from the candles, but when I think back to it, I remember sitting by the fire with Agab and Suleiman.

Suleiman hardly spoke a word, but Agab told us he didn't have a great home life. I asked both of them to write their names down. Agab couldn't write his name in English, but did write it in Arabic. Suleiman couldn't even do that.

At the end of the night, we got on the donkeys and the guys lead us out the back way to the Bedouin village.

For whatever reason, I got the bigger donkey, and Jason the smaller. Jason's legs were about the same height as his donkey's back, and his feet dragged on the ground. Jason said he could walk but Agab insisted riding was o.k. He looked like something out of Don Quixote, or an old-timey cartoon.

The moon was nearly full, so we could see pretty well, and I tried to focus on the stars as the donkey plonked down several flights of stone-carved stairs. Suleiman told me to relax, but eventually I said that I would prefer to walk down the steps because it was too scary for me. At the bottom of the stairway he said o.k., I could ride again. There were no more stairs.

This was about the longest thing I heard Suleiman say. I don't really know what his life was like. I know that Agab's shop was his escape. Of couse, Agab smoked spliffs and talked about drinking, so I don't know how good of a role-model he was.

The steps are steeper than they look. Or I'm just afraid of going downhill.

The steps are steeper than they look. Or I'm just afraid of going downhill.

A few days later, we met some people heading to Petra. Jason and I went to a nearby shop and bought Suleiman a new pair of sandals, and kitchen knife for Agab to pass onto them. These messengers actually snuck into Petra outright but were caught. They didn't have a chance meet Agab and Suleiman, but they met Agab's mother and sister, who own a shop a little farther down from Agab's, and passed the gifts on to them. They reported back to us that they were grateful and would pass them on in turn.

I don't know that we'll ever meet Agab and Suleiman again, but we've been telling people the story of our visit and hopefully a few more free dinners have come their way as a result. Moreover, hopefully they've touched the lives of a few more jaded travelers.

The Treasury from down below.

The Treasury from down below.


By J.T.

We've been traveling long enough that I've begun to get nostalgic for past parts of our trip. When we were faced with an unbearable volunteering experience in Israel (more on that later), I was nostalgic for our time in Norway, volunteering with Silje and Øyvind. They were so kind to us, and such good company. They really cared about us and we cared about them. Our time there was still one of the best experiences to date, and sometimes I regret that it came so early in our trip that perhaps we didn't appreciate it enough.When we were tired and cold in the Middle East, we started thinking about Seattle, and the nice things about our life back home. Our budget is doing great, but did we really want to keep going until the money runs out or do we want to come back at the end of summer, and chuck the rest into saving for the next big trip? I miss going to the gym, to the farmer's market, and seeing our friends.

Now here we are, renting a flat in Dahab, Egypt, where we will be for another week, getting the rest we needed. After this, we plan to head back to Jordan for a short time and then onto SE Asia. After Asia, back to the U.S. Granted, that's months from now, but faced with the final leg of our trip, I'm nostalgic for the beginning.

Sunrise over Dahab.

Sunrise over Dahab.

I'm so very nostalgic for the beginning, that, as embarrassed as I am to admit it, I start crying just thinking about it.

Jason had lobbied hard for a long road trip through the U.S. and I'm so glad I relented. We spent three-and-a-half weeks (see our other posts on specifics) meandering our way through the country. I miss that. I miss spending hours driving in the car with Jason, holding his hand, laughing for no reason other than we were finally going. Finally leaving our lives behind for a year of adventure.

I miss how easy the U.S. is. Our couchsurfing hosts in Tel Aviv had said on their last long-term travel adventure, they were getting overwhelmed in India and decided to change their plans and went to the U.S. where they rented a car and drove one end to the other. They chose the U.S. because it's easy. And it is! Compared to the rest of the world, the U.S. is an easy place to travel.

I miss being somewhere where all the prices are clearly labeled on things, and where roads and maps line up. I miss knowing whether or not the person standing behind me is talking about me or the weather.

But it's so much more than that. I miss the farmers' market Ian and Lindsey took us to in Davis, CA. I miss John's backyard in Denver. I miss the time we swam in the Colorado river in Utah, and the cool little coffee shop we discovered in Lexington, KY. I have this very vivid memory of stopping at a grocery store, I think outside of Salt Lake City, and buying carrots for half price ("manager's special") and guacamole for road snacks.

And yet, that doesn't even cover it. I miss the open road before us, both literally and metaphorically. I miss the beginning, because now I am contemplating the end.

The open road before us, somewhere in the American southwest.

The open road before us, somewhere in the American southwest.

Long-term traveling is hard. There are plenty of ups and downs, and we've learned the importance of going slowly, taking our time in places, and building in periods of rest. But overall, it's so enjoyable, there's so much world to see, that I don't want it to end.

We've already decided that this is not our last around-the-world voyage. We are skipping India, subsaharan Africa, China, Australia, and Latin America. Months ago I started planning our next several long-term trips. So I know that the world will still be there, that we are going to structure our lives around art and travel and adventure from now on.

There are several reasons we are leaning towards heading back to Michigan to spend some time there and pick up our car at the end of the summer.

Our friends have an annual weekend getaway on Lake Michigan every summer, and they are willing to hold it over Labor Day weekend this year so we can go. Last summer was the first time we were able to make it, and one of the highlights of our month in the Mitten. Each year they pick a book and the weekend is spent in a mix of literature discussion, drinking games, and lounging on the beach.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Peterson (i.e., stolen from her facebook page).

Photo courtesy of Sarah Peterson (i.e., stolen from her facebook page).

We also don't want to push ourselves until we burn ourselves out. Traveling until the money just runs out is really appealing, because we love traveling so much, and at least right now, we just can't imagine settling down. But we have to go back at some point. We can't do it forever, and we don't want to cram everything in until all our experiences just blend together and we can't take anything in anymore. There have been times on this trip where that has already started to happen, though we've learned to manage that with going slower and resting more often.

But the most compelling reason to go back is to spend more time in Michigan. When we ended our month-long stay in Michigan last summer, we couldn't imagine that this would draw us back again. Oh, sure, we knew that we'd stop back again because our car is there and because it will have been at least a year since seeing our families. But spending significant time there (like another month), was the furthest thing from our minds.

I had wanted a summer vacation in Michigan. But we felt so pulled in every possible direction by our families, trying to spend time with everyone, trying to be helpful children and grandchildren, that it wasn't restful at all. We saw people every day and felt like we hardly saw anyone. Really, the summer vacation, the feeling of relaxation, of freedom, came during our road trip, not hanging around Michigan.

In fact, the only thing in Michigan that reminded me of being a kid again was the time I got in a big fight with my sister and she made me cry. We hardly saw our friends. I thought that Michigan, though always my true home, didn't really fit me any more.

But Jason's dad, as most of our friends know, is sick. He has dementia and it's important to us to spend more time with him. I lost my dad a few years ago, and it was devastating. I'd give just about anything to spend one last day with my dad. To even sit next to him if had been in a coma and hold his hand and say goodbye. But my dad died suddenly and I didn't get that chance. So we realize that budgeting in (time, money, and energy) another stay in Michigan is going to be important, and there's really no better time to do it than August/September.

Besides that weekend trip on Lake Michigan, some of our favorite times in Michigan were visiting Jason's dad (he lives in a memory-care facility). It's a bit of a drive from his mom's house (around 30 minutes or so), but we got there a few times a week. It was one of our favorite things to do. We would go over there, and Jason's dad would tell him he was happy to see him, and that he loved him. He would tell him what a good-looking guy he his. It was emotionally hard, too. We had to sneak out, rather than say goodbye. Jason's dad was always looking for Jason's mom.

More compelling than seeing the world, is to spend more time there. Between Jason's dad's dementia, and my dad's sudden passing seven years ago, we understood that if we put off seeing the world, we might never do it. We had to do it before we had kids. Now we are leaning towards not having kids and living a life of adventure. But the world will still be there. Time with Jason's dad is precious, and how much longer he'll be happy to see Jason and tell him he loves him is unclear.

I'm still nostalgic for the beginning of our trip, as we contemplate the end.

But the world will still be there.

Little Red Jalaba

By J.T.

During our somewhat-spontaneous road trip through the Moroccan desert with our new friends Brad and Lynn, we took an overnight camel trek to the Merzouga sand dunes. The sand dunes were lovely, the stars were bright, the tajine was tasty, the camels were uncomfortable, but fun to have done once. But perhaps the most memorable part of our night, was when I asked them to tell us a Moroccan story. Not feeling comfortable enough in their English, our guides, Assou and Mohammed declined. So, I said, O.K., I’ll tell one.

The beautiful Merzouga Sand Dunes.

The beautiful Merzouga Sand Dunes.

This is the story of Little Red Jalaba, as told to Assou and Mohammed in the desert.

“There was a little girl who wore a red…”I paused, trying to find a synonym for hood, dismissing cloak and cape.

“Jalaba,” Brad said, referring to the traditional dress of Moroccan women, which sometimes contains a hood.

“Yes, Jalaba. So, Little Red Jalaba’s mother told her to go visit her Grandmother who was very sick.” Here I paused again, making sure they understood the familial relationships. They nodded, so I continued. “So, Little Red Jalaba’s mother said, ‘Here, go take this food to your Grandmother.’ Little Red Jalaba’s Grandmother lived on the other side of the woods.” Another pause, explaining, “forest…lots of trees.” They nodded and I moved on.

“As she was walking, she met a wolf.” Hmmm…wolf. “Do you know this word?” I asked. They did not. “Like a big…dog,” I said. They still looked confused.

“Aaaaoooo!” Brad said.

“An ishin,” Mohammed said. I don’t know if that’s more like a desert fox, or a wild dog, or wolf, but I went with it.

“Little Red Jalaba met an ishin. And this ishin can talk.”

“Because it’s just a story,” Brad interjected.

“Right. The ishin said, ‘Where are you going?’ Little Red Jalaba said, ‘I’m going to see my Grandmother because she is very sick. Now the ishin is very bad.”

“But very smart,” Brad added, pointing at his head.

“So the ishin ran ahead of Little Red Jalaba to her Grandmother’s house and ate her up. Then he put on the Grandmother’s clothes to pretend to be her.

I have now checked camel off of my list of modes of transportation. It was fun, if not comfortable.

I have now checked camel off of my list of modes of transportation. It was fun, if not comfortable.

“When Little Red Jalaba arrived she said, ‘Grandmother, what big ears you have,’ and the ishin said ‘So I can hear you better.’

“‘What big eyes you have.’ ‘So I can see you better.’

“’What big teeth you have.’ ‘So I can eat you up!’

“The ishin tried to eat Little Red Jalaba, but just then, a…” Another pause. Would they understand the concept of a woodcutter? I looked around at the sand dunes and then over at Brad.

“A hunter?” he suggested. “Do you know hunter?” he asked our guides. They looked at each other and then at us and said no. Brad pantomimed using a gun and added, “Shoots wild animals for meat.”

Yes, they understood. I went on. “The hunter shoots…kills…the ishin” (and I made the universal sign for for kill, dragging my finger across my neck and sticking out my tongue, complete with gagging sounds). “The hunter cut open the stomach” (again I resorted to charades, this time dragging my finger down my torso) and the Grandmother jumped out! She was O.K.”

“Oh my God,” Assou said, shaking his head. “She jumped out. Oh my God.”

Keeping the dust off.

Keeping the dust off.

“What’s the moral of the story?” Jason wondered.

“Don’t talk to strangers?” I offered.

The four of us Americans glanced at each other, all thinking of the touts who pester tourists in Morocco, asking “Where are you from? Where are you staying? You want good place to eat? I show you.”

“So when we come to this country and people ask us where we are staying, we don’t tell them, because of Little Red Jalaba,” Lynn said, voicing our thoughts.

I think we did a pretty good job conveying our story. I don’t know if swapping stories from one’s own culture is really something travelers have done for millenia, but I’d like to think so, that this is how cultural diffusion works. If Assou or Mohammed ever retells the story of Little Red Jalaba, would she turn into a he, not unlike the sex change Quan Yin underwent turning into a Goddess when her story crossed from India into China? We’ve already swapped out Riding Hood for Jalaba, wolf for ishin (whatever that is—my internet searching hasn’t confirmed its meaning, though it isn’t wolf), and woodcutter for hunter. What other changes might the story undergo?

Jason's explorer pose.

Jason's explorer pose.

The Kindness of Turkish Breakfast

By J.T.

I didn’t realize, when I booked our tickets from Nuremberg to Istanbul, that departure at 01:30 and arrival at 04:50 meant AM, not PM. So it was that Jason, and I showed up to our host’s apartment in Istanbul at 7:00 AM, with only 2 hours of sleep under our belts and adjusting to a new time zone.

Mesut, our host, met us at the bus stop and walked us to his apartment, making a brief stop at a bakery for fresh bread. At home, he started digging through his refrigerator, pulling out jars, and making tea. He sat us down at his table and laid out a beautiful array of cheeses, jams, honey, dried fruits, and nuts.

This is a typical Turkish breakfast. It is similar in principle to the standard European breakfast, of open-face sandwiches, but with a near-eastern flair, including staples like feta cheese and olives. After eating, Mesut headed to work, and Jason and I, despite really wanting a nap, headed out for a day of sight-seeing.

When Mesut heard that we wanted to take an overnight bus south to visit Ephesus, he immediately arranged for us to stay a night with his sister’s roommates in Izmir. His sister was studying in Poland, but her roommates said sure we could stay with them.

A few days later, Jason and I took an overnight bus down to Izmir, and thus found ourselves, again, tired from overnight travel, and feasting on Turkish breakfast. The overnight bus lasted 7 hours, so longer than our plane trip, but with every time the bus stopped, we woke up. In the beginning, the bus was overheated, but at some point in the night, rather than turning the heat down, the driver turned it off all together. It was just above freezing outside and not much better inside the bus.

The view from the arena in Ephesus.

The view from the arena in Ephesus.

 Asye, Mesut’s sister’s roommate, also met us at the bus stop, this time at the slightly more reasonable hour of 8 AM. We sat in the living room, while Asye disappeared into the kitchen. She came back and said, O.K., breakfast is ready, and she was going back to bed.

Asye included sliced cucumbers and tomatoes in her array, but otherwise it was similar to the fare that Mesut had made. This time, Jason and I did the dishes and then, having learned from our last experiences, decided to go back to sleep, too.

We showed up exhausted, weary travelers, and were welcomed into the homes of strangers with mounds of food and open arms. We had found Mesut via couchsurfing.org, with which we are near veterans at this point. But I was so grateful to Mesut and Asye that I will carry the kindness of Turkish breakfast with me when I eventually return after my year of travel, and try to welcome backpackers with as much kindness as they showed me.

Me and Mesut.

Me and Mesut.


By Jason

You may have seen my post about regrets and moving forward earlier on Facebook. If you didn't, here it is:

"The trick, it seems, is learning how to turn regret into resolve."

In our lives we find it's so frequent that we regret actions that we took, or didn't take. We lash ourselves psychologically and verbally with the word "should". Saying things like:

"We should have done this..." OR
"I wish we hadn't have done that..." OR
"I shouldn't have done this..."

These are useless statements if they aren't coupled with action. They only create stress without providing a way out of that stress. We lack the power to change the past. Focusing on past mistakes is a sure road to low self-esteem. As a so-called perfectionist, it was a trap a fell into for most of my life.

This works in the future tense as well. I can't tell you how many times I've said or heard the word "should" in future context. "I should work out more" or "I should travel more". 

These are just a different way of lashing yourself over the past. If you say you should work out more, this only means you're beating yourself up for how much you haven't exercised thus far. If you say you should read more, it just means you're angry at how much you don't read. 

Honestly, does saying "I should" ever make you feel better about yourself? Does it ever lead you to actually taking the action? Or are you just setting yourself up for future regret?

One of the challenges with trying to travel is that it's so much more work than you think it will be. Imagine, if you will, how you feel after a week or two or intense (not sitting on a beach) vacation. The phrase "vacation from our vacation" is so common as to be cliche, so I imagine that most of you know what I'm talking about. 

We left home just about six months ago, and have been on the move essentially ever since. This experience which has been so moving, informative, and spiritually satisfying has also been kind of like a full time job. 

There are, at current, 7 started but unfinished blog posts waiting to be published. I get halfway there, and then I fail to finish them. The result is that most of you guys haven't seen peep from us in months. And as time passes and the drafts pile up, I keep piling the "I shoulds" onto myself. I should post more. I should update our images on Flickr. I should add things to Facebook.

As you can see, none of these thoughts have led me to post. They've just led me to feel bad about myself. Which leads to more piling up of obligations and commitments unfulfilled. It's a hellish cycle that leads to less and less productivity.

So today I'm deleting all the drafts. And I'll make the following commitment. I'm going to post more. There may be a bit of a gap in the record as our times in Spain and Morocco got little blog love, but hopefully we'll have a better record of our changes and lessons and experiences as we go forward.

This trip is the second best thing I ever did, and I want to share it with you.

This is me standing in a literal hole, not unlike the figurative hole of my failure to post on this blog. 

This last month (For people that like maps)

By Jason

In case you've been wondering where we've been, here's a map! Every mark below is a city we spent at least one night in.

We're back in Germany now, spending a few days in Munich before heading down to Tux in Austria for a great thanksgiving feast among friends and three days of Alpine snowboarding. After that we're headed for a week in Turkey, followed by a month in Israel, a month in Jordan, and then onward.