San Fermin Festival

We were supposed to return from this amazing adventure sometime in early June.  We had originally planned, and more importantly budgeted for (quite accurately by E, I might add) 6 months abroad.  We saved for this time frame and had a soft idea of where and when we were going to travel.  Although, anyone who has been on the road for more than a few weeks understands that any ‘itinerary’ is soon obsolete.  You end up finding cities or regions that you enjoy more than you had imagined and stay longer than expected.  Of course that is often balanced out by places you find less appealing and leave early, but let’s not split hairs.  It’s fun to travel and it seems the more people you meet along the way, the more stories you hear, the longer your “to-do” list grows.  It’s almost counter-intuitive in the fact that the more you check off, the longer that list gets.

Earlier in the year we found out that a few friends were committing on a 3 year old plan to travel to Spain.  It was a country that was always on our radar from the start and we really thought it would be a good send-off to this epic journey.  So fast forward through re-signing our condo lease, dipping into some extra funds, and family generosity along the way; we extend our travels through the middle of July to coincide with their European jaunt.  The main objective of their vacation, which again was dreamt up a few years ago, stemmed from an idea to run with the bulls in Pamplona. A fantastically dangerous endeavor I too was curious about. Something about the white linen and red wine that really sparked my interest.

We met up with eight of our closest friends from home shortly before the week-long festival commenced. It was an extremely exciting time, not only catching up but preparing each other for the adventure ahead. We arrived the day before we had planned to run to stake out the course and get familiar with our surroundings. We collected advice from a number of outlets throughout the evening and tried to strategize as much as possible. We knew that we wanted to make it into the bull ring (they close the doors after the final bull arrives) but that was about it.

The keys to success seemed to lie in a few elementary factors. The first, and most important, was to stay on your feet. Sounds fairly obvious but the problem originates in your fellow runners. We learned that the other participants are generally the cause of one’s demise. Humans, when confronted with an inherent risk to their lives will push, pull, trip and stampede others to save themselves. Mass hysteria breeds incoherent decisions, which can often lead to disastrous outcomes. The second rule was to always stay away from the outside of the turns and avoid stray bulls at all costs. Cloven hooves + wet cobblestone = lack of traction. One hard turn, dubbed “dead man’s corner” was the epitome of this rule. Bulls charging near full speed had no real chance of making the change in direction without crashing into the barriers and you do not want to be their cushioning. This leads into the third ‘no-no’. Bulls were most likely to get separated from the pack near the turns and that is precisely when they are at their most dangerous. They seem to be content running along next to each other un-appreciative of the masses near them. That is until they are singled out. A single bull, without the comfort of his peers, becomes scared and aggressive. This is when most of the serious and even deadly injuries occur. They will stop in place, turn completely around, and even chase a specific runner if they feel threatened while alone. So in summary: mind the thousands of inebriated runners all around you, fight inertia and stay inside, and finally avoid the bulls pulled from the pack at all costs. Easy enough right?

The first rocket goes off (1 of 4 advising the runners that the first group of bulls have left their pen and are on the course) around 8am and all strategy immediately goes out the window. Adrenaline takes over and you act in the moment, contrary to any planning or thought over the previous days. Sure you understand the principles of safety but in the pandemonium it’s all you can do avoid casualty. A few of us had started about 2/3 of the way through the course to ensure entrance into the ring and painstakingly had to wait for the right time to run. A very difficult decision in the excitement and eventual panic of the crowd. In the distance the sea of runners near the middle of the road began to disperse frantically and we knew the bulls were close. It was time to go. Bobbing and weaving through the the crowd it was impossible not to slow and realize you’d soon be overcome. I’ll never forget the sound. It was natural in tone but mechanical in rhythm, constantly increasing in volume with proximity. It was absolutely frightening so I decided to bail out towards the nearest fence. I turned in time to see the pack pass a few feet in front of me and couldn’t help but feel helpless with my back to the wall. I decided to take my chances and try to follow them in, not be a target for the second group that was surely right behind. As soon as I got up to a decent speed I immediately came upon a large group of runners that had fallen and dog-piled on top of each other. I remember hurdling as high as I could to avoid being tripped up and then trying to concentrate on my landing. For whatever reason I ended up near the middle of the track and before I could assess my surroundings and make corrections I was thrown violently to the ground from behind.

I knew I was close to the entrance of the bull ring so instinctively (and moronically because you are told to curl into fetal position until you’re helped up) I got my feet under me and sprinted the rest of the way. Dazed and bleeding, I was renewed with a surge of energy from the packed stands. I felt like a gladiator coming through the gates for the first time and the electricity that resonated through the crowd was something I’ve never felt before. Standing in that ring amongst an endless patchwork of red and white screaming spectators was something I’ll never forget. The game winning touchdown, a buzzer beater, a walk off home run, or an extra-minutes goal… this is what it feels like.

After a few dopamine-filled minutes avoiding the adolescent bulls that are let out afterwards we decided not to push our luck and promptly exited the stadium. We were all reunited with relief and excitement over a few well deserved beers and delicious jamon sandwiches. We found out later through some speculation of the others up on a balcony (E and and three others) what exactly had happened to me in that last home stretch. The first picture is of me and my maker from the San Fermin website (I made the front page!) followed with some other group shots:

Food.

Things I am excited to eat/drink when I get home:

-Portillos- a real American hot dog.
-Milk, the delicious American hormone-infused kind that comes already refrigerated in a plastic container and doesn’t taste like baby formula.
-A proper salad! None of these countries know how to do salads like us Americans.
-Jimmy John’s.
-Bacon, bacon, and more bacon. And some bacon on the side.
-Greek yogurt.
-Peanut butter! Although they have this in Europe, I still feel deprived from our South America days.
-Miller Light. Classin’ it up with a watered-down tasting American-brewed light beer.
-Pepsi.
-Buttery, salty, movie theatre popcorn.

And then I shall immediately join a gym.

Italy Through the Lens

Rome – The Colloseum

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Rome – The Roman Forum

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Vatican City – Saint Peter’s Basilica (Crepuscular Rays)

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Vatican City – St. Pete’s again (this one reminded me of Ghostbusters 2)

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Rome – Trevi Fountain

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Rivisondoli – Mountainside

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Florence – Beautiful Wife

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Florence – Arno River

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Florence – Wedding Photo

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Cinque Terre – Manarola

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Cinque Terre – Hiking Corniglia to Monterrosso

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Cinque Terre – Vernazza

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Genoa – Chalk Walk

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Turin – Mole Antonelliana
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Hostel Life

After being in Southeast Asia for three months, we’re back to hostels now that we’re in Europe.

In South America, we stayed mostly in hostels because that was about the only way we could afford continuous travel. For example, in Rio, the cost per night was $60 for the two of us- two beds in a dorm style room. In most of Argentina and Chile, it ranged from around $30-36 for two beds. In Bolivia and Peru, slightly cheaper, somewhere around $16-20 for both of us.

Then, we arrived in Southeast Asia. Hallelujah! First off, dorm style hostels were fairly rare since the private rooms themselves were so cheap. We usually paid around $9-15 for a private room, sometimes in what was officially called a hostel, but still nothing like the dorm-style, communal living type hostels of South America. Plus, even the “hostels” in Asia would give you towels and sometimes little sample sized shampoos/soaps, something you’d never get at a South American hostel. Things were a bit more expensive in Southern Thailand and the islands, but still not by much.

And now we’re back to first world prices. We’re being as money savvy as possible, cashing in credit card points for a hotel room in Rome, using Airbnb.com for Rocarasso and the first two nights of Barcelona, and staying in hostels elsewhere. So as I type this, we’re in a hostel in Barcelona, the last hostel we’ll stay in for the whole trip thanks to both our parents for hooking us up with hotels in Madrid and the Canary Islands. And while I’m here, I’ll share with you some of the oddities of hostel life that I’ve (sadly) gotten used to.

-The girl that sleeps with her toiletries. There is always one girl in the room that’s on vacation rather than traditional backpacking and therefore has an arsenal of toiletries- bags of lotions, hair products, and makeup. These toiletry bags must be very complex and difficult to re-pack before she heads out at night because in the morning when I wake up, I always find this girl snuggled up with all of her toiletry items spread across the edge of the bed, as if she has no where else to put them.

-The “gap yah” kids. Jen, you know who I’m talking about. Enough said.

-“Free breakfast” is almost always some variation of bread and jam. The only memorable exception to this rule was at Hostel Empedrado in Mendoza, still one of my favorite hostels to date simply because they offered eggs for breakfast (and free grapes from the grape vines growing overhead). Moral of the story, don’t ever pay more than an 50 cents extra to stay in a hostel that entices you with a free breakfast.

-I am now a pro at climbing onto the top bunk without using the ladder while in the pitch dark. Skillz, people.

-I literally did not know manual-ignition stoves/ovens existed until this trip. I had never used one before and had to be taught how to light it with a match/lighter. Talk about being that naive American girl. Thank you, communal hostel kitchens for bursting my modern appliance bubble. Speaking of which, I have not used a dishwasher in over 7 months. Will I ever find use for one again?

The Romi’s Motherland

Visiting Z’s never-before-met relatives Emilia and Luigi in Rivisondoli, Italy was entertaining from the first minute. First was our seemingly endless search for a payphone in the small town of Rocarasso, where we stayed near Rivisondoli. Calling them was our only way of getting in touch with them; in their 80’s, email wasn’t something they knew anything about. On top of it, we weren’t even sure how much they knew about our trip to visit. We’d connected to them only through a line of relatives and had only been told they were aware we’d be in town sometime next week. After finding the payphone and Z fumbling through a mix of Italian/Spanglish trying to ask Emilia if Luigi was available (knowing we’d be better able to communicate with him as he spoke fluent Spanish), we got on the line with Luigi and told him we were in Rocarasso- to which he said we should just wait for ten minutes and he’d come get us. He hung up the phone before we got the details- where would he pick us up? How would we know it was him? We never even told him an address or where we were calling from. But apparently Rocarasso is the type of village that’s intimate enough that you can just drive through town and find people, because in ten minutes he’d found us and we were zipping along mountain roads in his little car on our way to Rivisondoli.

Emilia was a lively, friendly lady who actually spoke a few licks of English- apparently she lived in Chicago for a few years when she was much younger, before she married Luigi, and she had picked up a few basic phrases in her mostly-Italian neighborhood on the west side of Chi. But, in her own words, “I don’t remember nothin! I’ma old now!” So, basic phrases aside, we communicated with her mostly through gestures and our conversation with Luigi in Spanish.  With the few English words Emilia remembered, she gestured sternly at Luigi like a stereotypical Italian woman. When he opened a window she’d just closed, it was both-hands-in-the-air, “whatsa matta wit you?!” At dinner, she used her limited English to basically force feed us- “You like-a? Take-a!” as she shoved plates of food at us.

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After two meals with them, dinner on night one, and lunch on the second day, we were hesitant to overstay our welcome and have dinner with them again. But we weren’t sure what the right etiquette was, because we were never actually invited to any meals, per se. From them, it was always “are you eating with us tonight?” How do you respond to that? “Um, are we invited?” was the thought running through both of our minds that was never really appropriate to voice. It seemed that in Italy and within family circles, there was just always an open invitation to meals and you only had to announce that you’d be present for the next one. So, three meals for us it was and man-oh-man I can’t believe we almost missed that last one. The dinner plates came out each with a tennis ball-sized piece of mozzarella, oozing warmth and cooked so perfectly that there was a crunchy, lightly-browned outside, like a perfectly roasted marshmallow. I learned what this meal was called but quickly forgot as my sense of taste steamrolled any other thoughts in my mind.

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Here’s the picture I took on our last mozzarella-filled dinner. As you can see, Armondo, Luigi and Emilia’s son, front left, couldn’t even stop eating the mozzarella long enough to wait for the picture to be taken. I seriously don’t blame him.

Luigi became our tour guide. He showed us the hotel he and Emilia owned which was managed by their son Armondo. He took us in his car up into the mountains to take in the views and then toured us through nearby villages. Each time, he’d take out his walking cane and stroll through town saying hello to and making small talk with most everyone he passed, clearly people he knew from his 80+ year history in the area.

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Here’s Luigi talking with a friend of his who I believe, based on moustache alone, should also be named Luigi.

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And just like that, two days later, our visit had ended to warm hugs and goodbyes, and we were on our way to Florence.

The Old Country

Last week we flew from Bangkok to Rome!  Italy is amazing.  We envy their lifestyle here tremendously.  Quite a few times we’ve mentioned we wish we could partake in more of their daily routine but always recognize that we just work too much.  10 hour days are unheard of.  A long lunch with a big beer or tall glass of wine is completely normal.  An afternoon espresso on the sidewalk is almost mandatory.  The streets are clean, the public transportaton is efficient and there’s no shortage of small businesses.  They speak a beautiful romance language and everyone seems happy and can always be seen sharing pleasantries with their neighbors.  Corrupt government or not, the Italians are doing some important things right over here and I like it.

As I’ve mentioned our first stop was in the capital, Roma.  What an amazing city, so rich in history.  The architecture (whether in ruin or not) is out of this world.  The list goes on and on:  the Roman Forum, giant block-long marble fountains, the Colloseum, Vatican City, numerous warehouse sized bath houses, the Pantheon, and some of the most beautiful cathedrals on earth.  To view 2000 year old structures, some of which are said to be impossible to build again even with current technology, blows your mind.  I couldn’t get enough.  We walked from highlight to highlight, wide-eyed the entire time.

Our next stop was a little closer to the heart, so to speak.  We trained east into the region of Abruzzo to visit my father’s cousin in a small mountain town named Rivisondoli.  My first cousin once removed, Emilia Como, and her husband Luigi own and operate a 50 room hotel near a ski resort.  It was closed for the summer but they were nice enough to give us the full tour (think The Shining).  Luckily she speaks a bit of broken English and E was excellent at communicating with Louie via Spanish which he learned some fifty years back.  They were the most generous hosts.  We had three excellent meals over two days and a number of drives around the surrounding mountainside areas.  At 83 he was still a great driver and certainly a capable tour guide.  It was a stunning landscape.  Centuries-old towns built right into the hills overlooking vast green valleys below.  We’ve decided we need to come back to Italy just for a session on the slopes alone.

Before I leave you… the food!  Pizza, pasta, and all of the pannini delis.  The olives, the wine, prosciutto, and fresh mozzarella!  Heaven

Railay Beach, Thailand

In every sense Railay seems an island (specifically the fact that it’s only accesible by boat), but in fact, it is just a penninsula on the West coast in the Andaman Sea.  The area is completely secluded from the mainland by limestone cliffs.  Over millennia, the friction of the tides have seperated a good bunch of these from what is now beach and into stand-alone spires. Massive rock pinnacles, many several hundred feet high, litter the ocean in every direction. It is a landscape that not many places on earth can claim and which turns out to be a great place for adventure seekers. Here are a few of our highlights from the four day romp.

– Viewpoint trek
After our first night in our bungalow we were told to take a scenic hike to the overlook and to check out a ‘secret’ lagoon. We walked along the ocean until we came to what appeared, from the ground, to be a mountain in our way. Stone features and outcrops hanging off a sheer wall rising into the sky. As we walked alongside it for a bit we came across an opening, if you will. The only giveaway was the sign that read, “Danger – no BASE jumping”. Hmm, must be up this steep, slippery, vine covered crevasse we’re looking up into. After a brief discussion we decide to give it a go. Luckily there are many roots to use as footholes as well as old knotted ropes to assist yourself up with, otherwise forget it. After about 30 minutes of hand over hand and a few close calls we were on what seemed to be a plateau. We found a trail and walked through dense monkey-inhabited tropical forest until we arrived at the lookout. It was a 5×5 hole cut out of the bush with certain death waiting just beyond. Absolutely beautiful views but not for the faint of heart.

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After catching our breath and taking a few photos we went off in search of the lagoon. We found another path that led us down away from the first climb. We came across an older couple struggling with some ropes on their way back up who explained that they had only gotten about half way. We clambered down past them and came upon a ravine leading to the emerald green water below.

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Three increasingly difficult drops lie ahead, all nearly vertical and covered in slippery clay and sharp rocks. I was the guinea pig and followed some echoed voices in the distance all by my lonesome (better to have someone to get help if needed). In the end we decided it was better for E not to risk the descent. It was nerve-racking to say the least and required quite a bit of upper body strength in places where there was no climbing holes and only the frayed rope. Sadly, the prize in the end was spectacular. The lagoon was essentially a very large tidal pool, fed by a subterranean cave, set inside a giant stone cylinder. The bright green water was surrounded by encompassing cliff walls as high as the mid-day sun above. The difficult traverse down kept many a tourist out, so it ended up being a very peaceful oasis to explore before heading back up and out.

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– Sea kayaking
The next day we rented a two-seater for some coastal exploration. The longtaill boats make for good cultural photos and are functionally sound in shallow water but they leave a large void in capturing the sights and sounds of nature. We left the bay a few hours before sunset and explored a number of the previously mentioned outcrops in the Andaman. We stopped along the way at a beautiful cave covered in stalagmites/actites and shared a moment looking back on mainland.

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We spent a good deal of time surveying the many water-filled basins left after high tide as the good scientists that we are. So many fun creatures to watch in those natural little petri dishes. After about two hours on the water we were tired and ready for a fresh water shower and some food. We got back just in time for another beautiful sun setting into the ocean and got ready for dinner and some live music.

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– Rock climbing
On our last full day we signed up to do one of the many mountain climbing activities offered at Railay. We decided to try what the climbers call ‘deep water solo’. In general, it’s simply a free climb (no harness or safety ropes) over deep enough water so that the climber wont hurt themselves from a fall. That last bit is more ‘in theory’ as anyone who has ever done an unintentional belly/backflop will tell you. Sure you won’t touch the bottom, but the surface of water can be like concrete at certain heights. We’ve done a bit of high-diving recently (at the dive rig in Sipadan and recently in Phi Phi) so we thought why not. It turned out to be an absolute blast. After cruising out to a place called Poda island we would jump off the longtail for a short but choppy swim to the ladder.

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Mind you, the ladder usually consisted of bamboo shafts hand-tied to deteriorating rope and the accomponying ocean swell made it extra “fun” with tired arms and legs. Once off the ladder (depending on the site but usually 5-10 feet up) you could just start climbing. There were a few different routes of varrying difficulty but it was all completely natural. It was just you, the massive limestone karst, and the salt water below.

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After a few steps vertically you began to realize that a scrambling fall was not going to feel good. The goal was to climb to a comfortable height, find a place to turn around, and then conciously jump down so as to not tear a groin or shoulder upon entrance. Your extra precaution and thought process between each step added a bit of extra adrenaline and who doesn’t enjoy that!

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Off to Koh Tao next, but for anyone in or going to the Phuket/Phi Phi/Krabi area make sure you stop in Railay. Even if you’re not keen on getting active it’s an absolutely stunning place to stay and enjoy a few of the most picturesque beaches. That being said, it’s also a photographers dream come true (sad face for our DSLR).

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Mixed Feelings on Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi, Thailand.

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Made famous by the late 90’s movie The Beach, it made worldwide news again in 2004 after the devastating tsunami hit its bays and obliterated most of the island.

Since then, the island has rebuilt and has a rejeuvenated tourism industry.

The unique landscape of the island makes it one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Essentially, two nearby limestone mountains jut out of the water strung together by what can really just be described as a large sandbar. On this small strip of sand/land, the village is located. On either side of the village is a beautiful turquoise bay. The beach itself is pretty amazing- soft, fine sand, minimal litter, clean waters, and a slow water depth decline that lets you walk over 50 meters into the water before your stomach gets wet. There’s also a viewpoint where you can sit among boulders and enjoy the view of the bays while watching the sun set or rise. We went on a boat tour around the nearby group of islands, including visiting the pristine MaYa Bay where they apparently filmed the aforementioned movie. And the main beach at night is lined with bars and massive fire dancer shows. We saw fire dancers like you can’t imagine… the most incredible things done with fire on chains, poles, and all sorts of other contraptions. I found myself envisioning the various fire dance crews having fire dance battles on the beach in their spare time.

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All that said, I really love this island.

Except. The level of douche baggery on Koh Phi Phi is off the charts.
Guys like this:

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strut around the island day and night reliving last night’s rage and who drank more buckets of liquor the night before. Arguing about who would win in a muay thai match, or planning out the next bamboo tattoo they’re going to get across their back. And short of staying at one of the few remote (and expensive) resorts on the island, expect to hear club music blasting until at least 5am. Every night.

I also can’t forget to mention that I’ve seen my fair share of 80s trends come and go. But, let me tell you, ladies and gentelmen, in Southern Thailand, the 80s are back like you’ve never seen it before. I’m talking sweat bands, Levis, neon Ray Bans, mid-thigh, elastic waisted, bright pink or baby blue men’s swim trunks, high fade haircuts, midriffs, and yes- the F-word. Fanny packs. Why is this happening? My theory is because most of the tourists here were born.in.the.90s. So, the 80’s thing is now “retro”. Sorry, but it’s just a bit much for me to take in right now.

So, to Koh Phi Phi or no Phi Phi? Well, let’s say I probably wouldn’t recommend it for a quiet romantic honeymoon, and definitely not for families other than a day trip to the various bays around the island (which IS a must do). However, if you’re up for not only some amazing views, but also one of those what-the-hell-did-I-do-last-night mornings where you wake up on the beach, sand in your mouth and salt water in your hair, surrounded by a litter of lost flip flops and followed by one of those useless days spent near the waterfront doing nothing but enjoying a dreamlike place you have to come all the way to Thailand to experience, Koh Phi Phi is where it’s at.

Anniversaries

Today marks exactly 6 months of travel AND our three year wedding anniversary!

Here’s to following our dreams and looking forward to the future.

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A Kindle Thank You

We are cursed with electronics on this trip.

First, my Canon point-and-shoot camera that I brought on the trip never even worked. I hadn’t used it in a while, and failed to test it before bringing it. So, of course once I first tried it when we got to Brazil, it was a goner. Wouldn’t read memory cards at all. No big deal, we still had our Sony DSLR (A33) and our GoPro (Hero 3). Not to mention both of our cell phones and our tablet.

Well, then our Sony camera got stolen. We found a good deal and a tourist tax refund and splurged to buy a new one (Sony A37), figuring that that was the one camera of the three that we didn’t want to go without.

Then Z’s phone had an unfortunate “liquid submersion” incident which caused it to electrocute us whenever it was plugged in. We decided to live without that. (Sorry T.R.- he owes you a phone when he gets back!)

Shortly thereafter, our tablet’s power button broke. Unfortunately, the power button also turns back on the screen when it goes to sleep, so it was a necessary button to have.

We brought the tablet into the Acer service center which resulted in us having quite the thrilling experience making our way back to Jakarta to pick it up after a week-long repair that should have taken fifteen minutes.

A few days later, my phone just decided not to turn on anymore. It was an old lady anyway and her days were numbered. We decided to just live without that, too.

Then our four-days-ago-repaired tablet’s power button broke… again.

And would you then be surprised to hear that our three month old Sony camera stopped reading memory cards, similar to what had previously happened to my Canon point-and-shoot? After trying all the potential internet-suggested fixes, we resulted to bringing it to the Sony service center in Phuket. Turns out they have to send it to Bangkok for repair now and we’ll have to live without it until we can pick it up there in three weeks. (Film aficionados are feeling really justified right now.)

Our GoPro has luckily encountered no major problems, but let’s all just knock on wood about that. However, it’s not the best at general or close up shots so it’s not ideal for taking photos in every situation.

So there’s only one, not-previously-mentioned item that’s been the trustiest electronic device of all time. It has never let me down – my Amazon Kindle. Thank you, Kindle, for being there for the long bus rides, airport layovers, and lazy beach days. Thank you for having quite possibly the best battery life of any device on earth. Thank you for finding me in Hanoi when I was a bad Kindle mom and left you behind in Hue. Thank you for using a standard micro-USB sized charger that I can buy anywhere in the world for cheap. And thank you for not giving me anger management issues, which every other device on this trip has given me.

So here’s to travelling like the good old days- with photos stored as memories, and (electronic) books in hand to take you temporarily from one beautiful place to another.