Reverse Culture Shock

1 02 2012

By Whitney

The day Phil and I left for China, I stood in the San Jose, CA airport hyperventilating and feeling faint. It was one of those life threshold moments where you know you’re stepping over a boundary to something incredibly different, challenging, and soul-changing. It’s a scary and brave thing to leave behind your job, social contacts, and country for an extended period of time in completely foreign territory – and it’s one of the most important things i’ve ever done for myself.

You come back from a trip like this a changed person – you can’t help it. Experiencing life through the eyes of different cultures changes you. It teaches you how others prioritize their lives, new ways of doing things, it shows you how business and consumerism is globally linked.  I’ve seen the rainforest devastation that the palm oil farms cause first hand (look at the ingredient lists on your processed food). I’ve seen the total environmental devastation in China that results from a lack of regulation and rapid urbanization. I’ve seen the poverty and the hard choices those societies have to make to survive in the short term…even when those choices are not sustainable for the long term. I’ve traveled to countries that have social services we could only dream about as Americans – and talked to them about the sacrifices the people in those countries make to sustain that reality. I’ve argued with corrupt port officials, and been helped by the nicest people you could ask for.

Travel teaches you what you want out of your country, yourself, and your future. It changes your expectations, and broadens your options. For me, the 28 countries i’ve been to have been a personal revolution.

Coming home was difficult for me. By now, most of you have gathered that we’re back in North America, doing a sweep of the US and Canada visiting friends and family. What most people don’t realize about long term travel is that the shock of being back can be almost as dramatic as leaving – sometimes more! We were hit with the tidal wave that is the American consumer-based culture. We had just been in New Zealand, where shops close early, and leisure time is spent outdoors hiking, biking, kayaking, or with family. We are striving to carry the self-sufficient, save vs spend attitude with us as we enter the next chapter of our lives. We are content with less stuff, more quality and less quantity. In New Zealand, it’s about nature, and family, and living. As we want it to be. A tip of the traveler’s cap to you, New Zealand: a country young enough to value it’s natural resources, a country small enough to be able to agree on things, and a country smart enough to dial back the rhetoric and have social policies that make sense.

There are a lot of amazing blogs out there that help people make the leap to a career break, both logistically and emotionally. They all warn you about the re-entry, the changes, the shift in your own perception of yourself and your hometown. If you’re considering doing what we’ve done, know that you’re going to come out of it changed for the better! The people you come home to won’t really understand it, because it really takes going through it to “get” it, but there’s a whole community out there who do – and it’s an amazing group of people! We’re always happy to help, if anyone is considering an extended trip!

The glacier-cut road to Milford Sound

25 12 2011

By Whitney

Milford Sound, a glacier-cut water inlet deep in the heart of the Fiordland* National Park on the Southern Island, is one of New Zealand’s most recognizable sights. With soaring mountains, lots of wildlife, and one of the world’s most scenic drives to reach it, it’s no wonder it’s so popular! We were lucky enough to take a late cruise on the sound, and had the place virtually to ourselves! It was a far cry from the touristy bustle most people experience on the sound. Here’s a collection of photos from the stunning drive in, and of Milford Sound itself! Make sure and check out the pictures of the cheeky Keas – the world’s only alpine parrot. Intelligent and too curious for their own good, they’ll pick apart your car and fly away with the pieces if you aren’t vigilant!

(* New Zealanders, for some reason, use an “I” instead of a “J” in “fiord”. Not sure why.)

A Kea biting kayaking gear on a tour truck.

This is the moment where we thought “Hmm, maybe we should have gotten the extra insurance on the car…”. Kea are known for stripping the windshield seals off of cars!

After we passed through a tunnel in the mountains, the weather was completely different on the other side!

And here she is: Milford Sound. That’s Mitre Peak in the left center.

A Milford Sound rainbow!

Phil drinking from the waterfall :-).

Me, in a picture! I actually exist!

A boat in the picture for scale…

Daytime is when the local marine mammals rest up for their nighttime feedings. A typical afternoon consists of:


Big yawns:

And the tuck and curl:

On the way back to our hotel, the light got even better!

Quad biking without the pesky liability

23 12 2011

By Whitney

New Zealand has something the USA doesn’t have: People who don’t sue over everything. And that means when you do an adventure outing in New Zealand, it doesn’t feel like a safe Disneyland ride. Guided quad biking in the states? Flat terrain with an automatic. Quad biking in New Zealand? Crazy challenging terrain with a manual transmission. It takes a hell of a lot of upper-body strength and willpower to get through the tough spots. Here are some photos from the Tongariro National Park area (from quad biking through the bushland, and from hikes through the lusher temperate rainforest regions). It was a day to remember…and a lot of muddy laundry to do after :-). Make sure you scroll down for more artsy nature photography from the park, too!

I only got stuck once…

Can you spot Mt. Doom behind us??!

We also did a hike through the rainforest up to the alpine levels of the mountains, and it was just stunning. Pictures below!

Nau mai!

23 12 2011

By Whitney

Nau mai!” is “welcome” in the native Maori language in New Zealand. It’s the sentiment we’ve felt every moment we’ve spent in New Zealand. We’re pretty sure it isn’t the relief of being someplace so much closer to home, culturally – New Zealanders really are the nicest group of people we’ve ever met. Need proof? Our cab driver in Auckland rolled down his window and politely asked if he could jump ahead into the next lane over instead of the typical Boston move we’re used to (the “gun it and flip off the driver as you cut them off” move). On the hiking trails in the US, you might get a polite nod and a short “Hi”. On hiking trails in New Zealand, you get jolly hikers who comment enthusiastically on the marvel at the end of the trail, encouragement to get there, and a hearty “Good day!!”. If you drop your iPhone in the parking lot in Dunedin, New Zealand, someone will wait for you to come back to your car to return it to you. If you do that in Boston, it’s already been wiped and put up for sale on Craigslist by the time you finish grocery shopping.

(Maybe it’s just Bostonians that are assholes to one another? My 7 years there have jaded me, I fear).

Regardless, New Zealand is amazing. In the 28 countries i’ve been to, it is the one I have felt simultaneously amazed and at home in. I wish I could take some Kiwi-ness home with me. Maybe someday we’ll be lucky enough to live here, if only for a few years!

I’m going to start the New Zealand posts with my favorite day in New Zealand – a famous hike – the Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park. It’s a 19-kilometer brutal trudge across volcanoes, past alpine thermal lakes and pools, and through Mordor and Mt. Doom from the famous Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tourists often underestimate this walk because it is so popular – you can have all four seasons in a day, and it’s a dramatic, steep change in altitude. It’s the kind of thing that people who come from countries where people don’t hike or do serious outdoors stuff (**COUGH** China **COUGH**) regularly cost New Zealand over $250,000 a year in rescue missions. That’s a real number. A quarter million dollars a year. If you go to New Zealand, you HAVE to do this hike. Just spend some time in an REI store and on a stair climber first.

Here are stunning photos of this hike – one of the best days of my life.

The famous Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings! More shots to come…(and yes, it has a real name, but its far less interesting).

We hiked across this entire lava field, and down from the left out of shot. And that was only the first hour and a half of 8 hours!


The clouds make Mt. Doom look like it is erupting, no? 🙂 That’s Phil in the foreground.

This is an open lava tube with Mt. Doom in the background:

The red crater is an active thermal vent! It was a nice way to warm up on the cold, windy peak.

And now for gratuituous gorgeous thermal pool shots! (with some people thrown in for scale!)

I am actually really afraid of going down steep slopes. I’m 100% fine with heights – cliffs, tall buildings, dangling off a mountainside on a harness are all fine with me. Ask me to descend down an ashy mountanside at a steep angle? I get all clammy. This fear gets validated later on in the trip…stay tuned.

One of the few flat passages of the hike:

An alpine lake:

Beginning our descent….

A day in Bangkok

23 12 2011

By Whitney

Sorry for the radio silence, guys! Phil and I have been living it up in New Zealand, and that means remote areas with little internet access (the last place we stayed didn’t even have internet, and the place before that only had dial-up!). This is our last Asia post – i’m going to do a couple of New Zealand posts tonight as well!

We had about a day in Bangkok where Phil was feeling up to sightseeing, so we decided to head to the famous Grand Palace and to see the giant Reclining Buddha. The floods in the city center had receded enough that boat travel along the river was possible – an amazing way to arrive at the palace! The Grand Palace, built in 1782, has housed the King of Siam over the years (the current king resides at a different palace) and is a stunning show of excess and power. The Reclining Buddha is housed next door to the Grand Palace in the Wat Pho, which is also coincidentally the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. At 160 feet in length, the Reclining Buddha is overwhelming in size – and absolutely stunning! Here’s a collection of photos from the day’s adventures.


The temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia

7 12 2011

By Whitney

Many of you have undoubtedly heard of the amazing Cambodian temples located in Siem Reap, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat. The collection of temples was built by the Khmer civilization starting in the 9th century – these puppies are old! In true ancient temple fashion, slave labor was used, and the temples symbolically tie kingship and religion together. Many of the temples were originally Hindu-oriented, and then were refitted for Buddhism, while some started out as Buddhist temples. Angkor Wat is an excellent example of this – both Hindu and Buddhist relics are now displayed there so you get a feel for the complete history!

It takes multiple days to see all the temples – I did most of it on my own after Phil’s hospital stay while he was sleeping it off in the hotel room. Phil joined me on our last day there for a quick tour of my 5 favorite temples! I’m going to just post a photo essay – the listing of the temples is a bit boring if you’re not there to see it all, so I’ll spare you the dry bits and get right to the stunning visuals :-).

The famous Angkor Wat....shrouded with scaffolding. I had the same let down when I sent to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York City.


Hindu relic in Angkor Wat.


A 3-D carving of an Indian tale lining the outer walls of a temple building in Angkor Wat.


A makeshift shrine.



Note the faces of the Buddha carved into the towers of this temple:

A photo essay of Luang Prabang, Laos

30 11 2011

This was the amazing view from our hotel. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of it’s well-preserved colonial architecture and quaintness. It’s nestled in between two rivers and beautiful rolling green hills – an amazing introduction to the rest of Laos (which we hear is equally stunning, but water buffalo and poor village-filled instead of historic wooden house-filled). Laos is definitely on my list of places i’d love to return to! Here’s a longer look at this amazing place…..

Cushions and random items tossed aside at a monestary (I loved the visual texture)

Temple door


Door detail


Buddhist relics