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So we’re back in the US.

What a year. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to travel to all these countries and experience so much. We saved and planned for years so that we could hike the Annapurna Circuit, ride a camel, see the Acropolis, pet a koala, and eat amazing food from all over the world. I took some really fun cooking classes in Japan and Thailand and learned a decent amount of basic Italian. Scott learned how to ride a scooter. We both learned how to cross crazy busy streets (make eye contact with the drivers, walk slowly and steadily instead of running across or stopping suddenly).

One of the best parts was meeting people and hearing their stories. We met a fascinating Nepalese man who had married a Japanese woman and had run a Nepalese restaurant in Japan before coming back to Nepal to run a Japanese restaurant with his wife. A couple of women in Barcelona drove up to us by the sidewalk and offered us a ride just because we looked lost. We shared an apartment with a friendly Italian couple who cooked us dinner. An American who spent half the year in his cabin in Maui and the other half in Nepal making a documentary gave us a ride in his SUV.

And of course it was great to meet up with friends in Paris and Naples and visit family in India, Thailand, and Korea.

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Even as we came across puzzling differences like people in some countries who didn’t really use maps (even taxi drivers, which made it hard when they didn’t already know where a place was), ultimately our travels were an affirmation of how similar we all are. We all need people to love and be loved by. Everyone likes to laugh. A smile can go a long way when you don’t speak the same language. And we all need food and shelter, except that many of us are so used to having it that we hardly ever think about it. Sometimes we used squat toilets and stayed in some questionable hostels in Nepal and India, but that was a complete joke compared to the extreme poverty that afflicts so many in those countries. Almost all Americans are more fortunate than the majority of people in the world. Yet it’s so easy to complain and envy some people while forgetting about others. It’s easy to buy a cheap shirt for $5 without thinking about why it costs $5. It’s easy to forget about the massive amounts of trash that we create when we just have it taken away instead of seeing it accumulate in the neighborhood.

I hope that this year of travel has brought a little more perspective and mindfulness to my life. Probably one of the biggest changes for me was becoming vegetarian. Kind of funny that I once claimed that I could never marry a vegetarian because I love eating meat. I’m sure there will be plenty more occasions in my life when I will eat my words. There’s a chance I could change my mind if the U.S. starts treating its farm animals a lot more humanely, but factory farming is just utterly wrong on so many levels. And at some point last year I decided that it’s wrong for me to support that kind of suffering just because I like how meat tastes.

One of the best things about the year was just having time for myself, especially precious after 3 years in residency with frequent 80-hour weeks. With more time to just sit and think and reflect, I have a better sense of who I am. I became interested in unconventional blogs like Mr. Money Mustache and Miss Minimalist. I usually read mostly fiction, but I found myself devouring nonfiction last year. Some of my most eye-opening favorites were:

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

I also really enjoyed Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

You’ll notice a lot of social psychology in there, which my husband happens to have gotten a Ph.D. in, but he didn’t seem that interested in reading or discussing them with me. If you read any of these, though, I’m happy to discuss them with you!

Anyway, I’m glad to report that we have come back safe (no need to worry, Uncle Ty), and I figure it’s a good sign that our marriage survived being together constantly for an entire year. The only regret I have is that we weren’t more social and didn’t book more accommodation that would have given us more interaction with other people.

After all the moving around, I’m looking forward to settling down in one place for a while and putting down some roots. It’s been strange to come back and experience sticker shock in the US, though – we’re wondering what happened to the 1 euro baguettes and 1 euro cappuccinos we saw in Europe, and we swear that US grocery store prices are way higher than we remembered. We’re still figuring out what happens next as we find jobs and hopefully start earning money instead of just spending it, but I think we’ll eventually travel again at some point, just a little more slowly. It’s funny how even after a year of travel, there are still so many places we want to see, like South Africa, Patagonia, Jordan, Greek islands, Sicily, the UK, and huge countries we’ve never been to (China, Russia, and Brazil).

As for this blog, this is my 105th post, and probably my last, although it’s possible I will revive the blog to post about other trips in the future. If you’ve been coming to this blog from http://www.scottandnina.com, that domain name will be discontinued by the summer – the permanent link to this blog is https://purplmarsh.wordpress.com. I wish everyone a wonderful new year as we finish this chapter and start the next one.

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RTW Trip Summary

Length: 348 days

Continents: Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa (if you count Egypt)

Number of countries: 25 (28 with Vatican City, Monaco, and San Marino)

Favorite country: Italy

Favorite mode of transport: a scooter in Vietnam and Indonesia

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Favorite food:

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Italy

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Thailand

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India

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France

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Indonesia

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Japan (dishes above from my cooking class)

Best drinks: coffee in Italy and Vietnam, cardamom/masala chai in India, beer in Czech, wine in Australia

Best hike: 12 days on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal

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Thorong La Pass at 17,769 feet

Worst hike: Mt. Ngauruhoe in New Zealand, aka Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies

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Really steep, and we stupidly started going up the scree (1 step forward, 2 steps back) instead of along the ridge. Plus we lost each other at the end.

Favorite animal encounters:

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Australia – You won’t find animals like kangaroos, duck-billed platypuses, and echidnas anywhere else in the world. Scott’s favorite Australian animal is the wombat on the left (or else his koala neighbor); mine is the Tasmanian devil on the right.

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Riding camels in India

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Hanging out with penguins in New Zealand

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Caring for elephants in Thailand

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Monkeys galore in Nepal, India, and Indonesia

Most impressive structures:

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Taj Mahal

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Temples in Bagan

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The Parthenon in Athens

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Pyramids of Giza

Favorite museum: Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand

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I think the British Museum could have beaten Te Papa if we had had longer to spend there, and the Louvre was a close runner-up.

Prettiest cities:

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Kyoto

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Venice

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Ghent

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Paris

Number of times robbed: 0

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…unless you count the cookie monster in India

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Scott riding a tram on the crowded streets of Hong Kong

You may have noticed that I (Nina) am the person writing most of these blog posts despite traveling together as a couple. Aside from his posts about exercise and Myanmar politics, you only see Scott in pictures. But this puzzles me (and maybe you) since Scott actually enjoys writing. Perhaps this puny little blog just isn’t good enough for him, though.

For a different perspective on our travels, you can check out his recent articles on Asian baseball fans in the Chicago Tribune and what it felt like to travel as a much-photographed pseudo-celebrity in the Jakarta Globe, which are topics I’ve touched on before, but now you can read much better-written articles about them from his perspective!

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Food (and more) in Hong Kong

Considering we only had 3 days in Hong Kong, we didn’t get to try as much food as we would have liked, but here were some of our favorites:

 

Best Meal: Vegetarian Dim Sum at Chi Lin Nunnery

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My favorite meal in Hong Kong was at the vegetarian restaurant at the Chi Lin Nunnery, where they served dim sum and good-value lunch sets with tea, four dishes, soup, congee (rice porridge) or rice, and some fruit for dessert. The only thing that confused me was the double-chopstick setup on the left (see picture above). I’m used to double-fork action when it comes to salad vs. entree forks, but there was no salad, just a soup for the first course. Was I supposed to use the chopsticks for my soup? I didn’t use one set of chopsticks thinking I was supposed to save it for dessert, but they cleared away both sets before bringing me a plate of fruit with a small fork. Maybe someone more sophisticated can explain this one to me.

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The restaurant was set within a beautiful garden, and while I was eating, I could see a moving waterwheel through the waterfall-drenched window. I have to admit, though, that everything kind of had a highly polished fake look about it. They had a bunch of funky rocks throughout the gardens, including a collection of flat sitting rocks (I think rocks you were supposed to sit on?) in a small room.

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There was a strong touristy vibe about the place, and I wouldn’t really recommend the gardens as a must-see tourist destination in its own right, but I still enjoyed my tasty lunch there. Be warned that if you don’t like tofu or mushrooms, it’s probably not the best lunch spot for you. It was perfect for me, though!

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This came out with the tea when they set my table. I’m not sure what it was, but it was chewy and tasted like fish, although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t fish since it was a vegetarian restaurant. I would guess mushrooms? I’m not making this sound very appetizing, but I swear it was good.

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This dish was more recognizable: tofu with bell peppers and mushrooms.

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The stir-fried catathalesma with baby asparagus was my favorite dish.  Catathalesma is a kind of mushroom that I don’t think I’ve ever had before, but it was rich and flavorful with a wonderful texture.

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A close second was the sliced beancurd over greens.

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These may look like egg rolls, but they were actually fried beancurd rolls wrapped around delicious veggies.

 

Best Dessert: Black Sesame Tofu

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To be honest, I don’t even know what the right name for this is, but it was my favorite thing that I tried in Hong Kong. It was basically mildly sweet ground black sesame on top in a little-thinner-than-pudding consistency and soft, silky tofu on the bottom. Yeah, I’m pretty much a sucker for the tofu.

 

Tea Appreciation Class

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If you’re planning a trip to Hong Kong, I would highly recommend looking at the free cultural classes organized by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, some of which require booking ahead. I loved going to their tea appreciation class, which involved talking about and trying different kinds of tea for over an hour. Not only did I get to drink lots of tea, I learned a lot about the Chinese method of preparing tea, which generally seemed to involve tiny teapots and cups. The instructor kept talking about how the teapots she was using were on the large side (note the small brown one between her hands in the picture above).

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Two kinds of oolong tea

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They also gave us a delicious sweet and chewy dessert, which unfortunately I don’t know the name of (recognize a theme here?).

 

The Food Expo

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A woman at the tourist information office gave us free tickets to the food expo, so we thought, “Why not?” since we like free and food and all. Well, the answer to that question would be, “Because there are crazy crowds at the food expo.” We weren’t willing to brave some of the long lines to get the better free samples they were offering, but we found the tea exhibit area much emptier and easier to navigate (and it still offered free samples). The green stack in the left picture above is compressed tea leaves.

 

I hope you liked the small sample of the food we enjoyed (and I didn’t even get to the Indian food we had) in our three short days in Hong Kong.

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In the last couple of days, we finally got around to seeing some of the most famous temples in Kyoto.

 

Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

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A beautiful three-story golden pavilion covered in gold leaf (even in the interior!) set by a pond.  Some of the koi in the pond were golden as well, and one of the nearby food stands even handed out free samples of green tea with gold flakes in them (Warning: don’t try the pink drink from them.  Just trust me.).

 

Ginkakuji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion)

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A bit of a misnomer since there isn’t any silver on this temple (the name refers to the unfulfilled plans to apply silver leaf), the pavilion borrows from some of the same design elements as the Golden Pavilion.

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One of my favorite features was the adjacent sand garden, with the conical structure representing Mt. Fuji.

 

Ryoanji (Temple of the Dragon at Peace)

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This temple has one of the most famous Zen gardens in Japan – a collection of fifteen rocks set in a 10 x 25 meter rectangle of white gravel.  I know, it sounds really dull, and half the Tripadvisor reviews remark on how it’s boring and crowded and not worth the admission fee.  But for me (keep in mind that I also enjoy looking at still-life paintings of eggs), the garden was fascinating and beautiful, and one of the highlights of my time in Kyoto.  Of these three temples, Scott liked Ginkakuji the most, but I loved the simplicity of Ryoanji by far.

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This Zen garden was first built in the 16th century, and there are a number of different theories as to what the stones and their arrangement might represent.  According to Wikipedia, there was even a Nature article in 2002 that suggested that “the implicit structure of the garden is designed to appeal to the viewer’s unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes.”  Right.  I don’t pretend to know anything about the deeper meaning of the garden, but all I know is that I really enjoyed sitting and looking out at it for quite a while.  There was something in the way the stones were balanced together against empty space that felt soothing and satisfying.  Of the fifteen rocks in the garden, only fourteen of them are visible from any one vantage point.  The garden is designed to foster meditation, and it’s been said that one will have achieved enlightenment when one is able to see the fifteenth stone.

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Wandering Around Kyoto

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We’ve been taking it pretty easy during our month in Kyoto.  I have to admit it hasn’t been the ideal time to come here, with the blazing heat and the strong yen bullying us around this summer.  Even so, much of this astoundingly beautiful country can be enjoyed for free, whether you’re strolling around the perfectly manicured grounds by one of the free temples or looking at the exquisitely wrapped desserts on display in the sprawling department store basements (and maybe trying just a few samples).  But if you’re on a budget, you should probably stay away from the cantaloupes in the department store – we saw one selling for $250, I kid you not.  That’s for ONE MELON!  It was in a special box, though, and wrapped with a pretty ribbon – we’ve seen more ordinary cantaloupes in the supermarket selling for more like $20 each, probably because they didn’t have a special ribbon.

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The Japanese department store basement is packed with food counters selling everything from pickles to ridiculous melons to fantastic desserts (one Japanese woman tried to convince us that mochi – a soft rice cake stuffed with rich ice cream – was healthy for us).  The picture above is of a delicious hot pancake thing stuffed with red bean that cost about a dollar.  I would much rather have 250 of those than a melon, although I might get a little sick.

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In any case, our house is in a quiet little neighborhood in northeast Kyoto, and we’ve enjoyed going on some pretty walks around our house (we love being right next to the Philosopher’s Path).  We stumbled on the bamboo forest above while going for a walk.

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We’ve also gone on a few small hikes and enjoyed some of the beautiful sunsets.  There are about 2000 temples and shrines in Kyoto, so pretty much everywhere you go you’ll run into one.

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In addition to wandering around the neighborhood and seeing temples, we went to yet another baseball game.  This one was a big high school baseball tournament that was nationally televised and held in the Osaka Koshien Stadium normally used by the professional Hanshin Tigers. 

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Scott seemed to get a real kick out of it while I melted in the sun, so you’ll have to ask him more about it if you want any details.  Afterwards we went to yet another Asahi brewery tour (yeah, we pretty much just do the same thing over again) and drank wonderfully cold beer.

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There’s been a steady stream of festivals this summer, but our favorite was the Gion Matsuri festival, the biggest annual festival in Kyoto.  Women dressed in traditional kimonos bought fried goodies from the numerous food stands.  Huge traditional wooden floats with giant wooden wheels lined the streets, lit up in the nights preceding a huge parade where dozens of men pulled the floats with ropes.  I would show you pictures of the parade except that I forgot to bring my camera.

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At least I had my camera the night before when the lanterns on the floats were lit.  The float is so tall that the top part of the float (where the zig zag shide are hanging) is cut off in the picture.

So aside from eating a lot of tofu, taking a Japanese cooking class, and planning our next (and last) European leg of the trip, that’s some of what we’ve been up to in Japan.  It’s been really nice to relax in one place for a while and cook for ourselves, but we’re definitely picking up the pace as we head to Europe.  We’re leaving for Hong Kong tomorrow, where we’ll spend a few days before going to Athens, but before I leave I’ll post about my favorite temple in Japan.  Stay tuned!

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We’ve mostly been eating in while renting an apartment in Kyoto, but for my 30th birthday I convinced Scott to take me to a nice restaurant for lunch.  Since I love tofu and Kyoto is renowned for its tofu products, it was only natural that we chose one of its specialty tofu restaurants, Tosuiro, where they serve lunch sets with multiple courses of tofu in various forms.  I was in tofu heaven.

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One of my favorite dishes was yuba, which you might remember from the cooking class as the skin that forms on boiled soymilk.

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Goma dofu, or sesame tofu, isn’t actually made out of tofu, but it sure looks like it and has a similar consistency.  Scott liked this one quite a bit, but this was my least favorite dish of the meal (real tofu is way better).

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We both enjoyed this cold and creamy tofu served with spinach, mushroom, and carrot.  One of the best parts was using the perforated golden spoon to scoop the tofu out of its golden bowl and dip it into a sauce.

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In a change of pace we got tempura.  In addition to the vegetables there was of course a delicious piece of chewy tofu.

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Next up was a soft tofu and egg soup with summer vegetables.

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Afterwards, we had a clear soup with rice and a side of tsukemono, or Japanese pickles.  I’m not sure where the tofu was here, but maybe it was used to make those crunchy floating bits or part of the soup base.

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We finished it off with a fantastic blueberry sorbet made with soymilk.  As I took a bite, I first tasted sweet, fresh blueberries, and as it quickly dissolved in my mouth, it left a creamy, nutty soymilk aftertaste.  My eyes may have crossed a bit when I ate this.

A delicious lunch set crammed with almost as much tofu as I could want (is it bad that I bought more yuba from Nishiki market afterwards?) was a great way to celebrate turning 30!

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