Friday, May 14, 2010


Snap back to reality, back to reality...So the rap song echoes in our heads as we have now been home for three weeks and routine is slowly finding us. We would be lying if we said we weren't glad to be home, but we continually find ourselves wondering how 7 months could possibly have gone by so fast. It will take years to fully process what we experienced and thankfully we have plenty of friends and family willing to wade through our stories and thousands of pictures with us.

We are living in Old Town, a neighborhood just north of downtown, and are loving it. Besides a plethora of restaurants and bars, Lake Michigan is only ¼ mile away. We are both back to work at Mercy Home, Deb is working on plans to open a bakery there and employ our youth. Joe is now a project manager and leading youth on trips to Lake of the Ozarks, the Boundary Waters and an international trip to Ireland over the course of the summer. Work is keeping us busy, but we often sit back at night and reminisce about our travels. We miss many things about being on the road, namely having no schedule, agenda or meetings to attend. Wandering into unknown neighborhoods and interacting with people from another country are possible in Chicago, but it is not quite the same. We don't miss carrying all of our belongings on our back and we don't miss sleeping in different beds each night.

We miss seeing and being with each other for the better part of each day. It is very weird to part ways in the morning and not see each other until dinner. Spending the last 7 months together was one of the biggest blessings of the whole trip. We are proud to say that all of the souvenirs we purchased and shipped home made it back, wine from Italy, suits from Thailand and Vietnam along with t-shirts and other items from across Europe. Our house is soon going to be filled with pictures that we took from all over the world. The hardest part has been deciding which ones to frame.

A year ago we were eagerly awaiting to hear if we had been accepted into the teaching program and having no idea what we might be getting into. Well, we most definitely are happy that we got accepted and traveled as extensively as we did. It was certainly an incredible trip and one that we might try to replicate one day. We appreciate all those that followed us on the blog and supported us during our time away. This is the last post as our lives will get significantly less interesting each day. If you have ever considered traveling or know someone that is, have them give us a call.

It is most definitely true what Ferris Bueller said "if you don't take time to stop and smell the roses, life will pass you by." Well, get on with it. The world awaits!

Lots of love.

Deb and Joe

Saturday, April 17, 2010

3 days and counting

Our bags are getting heavier (souvenirs), our feet are sore and blistered, we've hiked mountains, trekked through rainforest, and swam in oceans and seas. We visited islands, war monuments, ruins and palaces from thousands of years ago and the list goes on. We've indulged in great food and excellent wine, we've slept in good beds, bad beds and down right awful beds. We've traveled by ferry, bus, train, and plane and cannot begin to count the mileage. Our clothes could use a good washing machine instead of a bathroom sink. We've met people from all over the world and made new friends from different walks of life and most importantly we've made memories to last a life time. Joe and I have been gone for nearly seven months now and have exactly 4 days remaining until we head home (unless the volcano says otherwise). Our time away has passed seemingly in a blink of an eye, but will stay with us forever.

No matter what anyone tells you 5 months living abroad and eight weeks of truly backpacking takes its toll on the body. Don't get us wrong, we have soaked in every minute of each country and that is probably why our feet are so sore. As we finish up the last days of our trip we are having mixed emotions about getting back home. On one side we are thrilled to see our friends and family, to have a place to live with more than just a backpack of clothes to choose from, to cook our own food, to sit back and relax without having an itinerary of where we are to be next, to begin working again with the Mercy Home kids, and to just feel at home. On the other hand, we are sad to see our time coming to an end. Being together on our travels around the world, to have a new adventure each day, to be exposed to so many different cultures, to meet such wonderful people, to have a new challenge to conquer will truly be missed.

We continue to count our blessings as we have traveled safe and especially for the support from friends and family. The road doesn't end here, just takes a turn and one day we hope to jump back on the travelers highway!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


We have departed Germany and are heading towards Paris as this post comes together. Our weekend in Munich was a blast as we enjoyed a night at the infamous Hofbrau Haus, a walking tour and a trip to the concentration camp at Dachau on Sunday.

Heading to the Augustiner Beer House on Friday night seemed like an appropriate way to kick off our time in Germany. 5 liters of beer, a few shots, 3 different kinds of meat (for Joe) and a huge plate of Spatzle later we were in good spirits. The brauhouse is setup for two things, drinking and eating. The singing, conversation with strangers and a giggling walk home were just a bonus for us. We met fellow travelers and a number of locals that night. Most of it was spent in conversation with two German guys who had been given a reprieve from their wives to have a night out on the town. They were most definitely taking advantage of this and gladly welcomed us to join them. Its a bit hard to recollect all that we talked about, but we found each of their business cards in our jackets the next morning and the pictures in our camera filled in a few of the blank spots. There was a brass band playing and Deb even got to chat with the trombone player who was more interested in sipping out of everyone's beer than he was playing his instrument. We got back to our hotel around 10:30 and it felt like 2 in the morning for us. The lesson we learned; our college years and the “abilities” we had then are long gone...

Saturday was spent nursing a headache and enjoying the many sites that Munich has to offer. We toured a number of churches, marketplaces and shops for a better part of the day. Joe finally got his wiener schnitzel as Deb enjoyed potato salad for dinner. A couple of pretzels and sweet treats fueled us as well for what turned out to be a day of serious city walking. Sunday morning we went to Dachau and took a sobering tour of the first concentration camp organized in Germany during WWII. It is hard to describe what one feels while walking around a place that's only purpose was to kill people. Germany has done a very good job of turning the camp into a place of remembrance and education. The memorial's to the victims are beautiful and we are very glad to have spent the better part of a day there.

We headed to a small town outside of Stuttgart on Sunday evening, where Joe's dad grew up, to visit his cousins. Uncle Helmuth and Aunt Marianne showed us around the area for two days. Stops included the old cities of Rothenburg, Esslingen, Ludwigsburg and Linden. It was good to meet more Wronka's and even a bit entertaining to listen to Joe try his best to speak German. His ability to order beer and pretzels is good, but it goes down hill from there...Anyway. We had a great time with the family and enjoyed some very good meals and sharing of stories. They wanted to see our pictures and may have regretted asking as we dropped about 4 megabytes of photos on them!

Germany was good to us and the best part was visiting with family that we rarely get to see. We want to get back to the northern part of the country at some point, but what we saw these past few days will be pretty hard to beat. The travel itinerary is getting short now, only Paris and London remain. One week from today we will be back in Chicago, hopefully we can find a way to slow time down!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cinque Terre to Interlachen

The Easter Bunny was able to find us in Italy and the present we received was great weather for our two days in Cinque Terre. Our time was short and we made every effort to explore this famously beautiful spot on the Italian Riviera. Cinque Terre or 5 Towns is a testament to human ingenuity as the local people have cultivated land, literally hanging over the sea, to grow some of the best wine grapes in the world. As a UNESCO World Heritage site the area receives many visitors, some making the 9km walk between the towns as we did and others using the train to venture into each of the 5 towns. Our hike was one of the best we have ever taken. If we were not admiring the postcardesque views of the Mediterranean from a cliff we were enjoying the tiered vineyards that rise straight up the mountainside. The trail is rugged in most parts and we were grateful that our blisters are now callouses and our lung capacity rivals that of Olympians. Even though the hike was fairly strenuous the views you are rewarded with are incomparable to anything we have seen. Lush, green vineyards rise up the mountainside and the ledge where the trail runs hangs precariously over the ultra-clear, aqua green sea below.

The first two legs of the walk are fairly easy and the trail was crowded in parts. Walking through the famed “Amore Alley” was interesting as the tradition is for two lovers to place a lock with their initials onto a fence looking over the sea, thus ensuring their love will never be broken. We decided an entrepreneur with a bolt cutter could have a steady stream of business as we witnessed a disenchanted “ex” trying to pry a lock off the fence. Having no lock and being pretty sure a marriage certificate stamped with blood (remember the fight) covered us for a few years we moved on.

A stroll through each of the towns helped disperse the crowds as people ducked into souvenir, wine or snack shops. Of course, we stopped into a Gelato shop to replenish our electrolytes. The next 3 legs got the lungs burning and the sweat pouring down. It was in the 4th town of Vernazza that we made “the purchase.” Throughout our stay in Italy we had enjoyed a glass or bottle of red wine with every meal, except breakfast, and were set on taking a few bottles home to enjoy on special occasions. Well, we found a “mom and pop” operation that welcomed us and our credit card warmly. A lengthy discussion and sample of the local wines led to “the purchase” of 12 bottles that will meet us home in about two weeks.

The day ended with an incredible dinner that included award winning stuffed mussels for Joe and pesto pasta for Deb, wine as well. Cinque Terrre was a great way to end our stay in Italy and the hike rewarded is with great pictures, laughs, wine, sore legs and most importantly, unforgettable memories.


A day long train ride from Cinque Terre got us to Interlachen, Switzerland and the heart of the Swiss Alps. We had just one and half days, but squeezed in a fair amount in the that time. Set between 2 lakes, hence the name, the city is cleanest of clean (pretty sure they comb the fringes of the grass) and the people are damn friendly. We wandered the town after arriving in the afternoon, stopping for coffee and watching the numerous adrenaline junkies jump out of airplanes and off the sides of hills only to land in the huge green field in the middle of town. Our dinner of fine wine, bread, cheese and Swiss chocolate at the lakeside will always be remembered. The full day we had was dedicated to tackling the 567 meter Harder Klum mountain. It was the hardest hike we have taken on this trip and our thighs will not soon let us forget it. The views from the top were awesome as the whole valley is spread before you like a miniature model. The fresh mountain air and a delicious picnic lunch was a fine way to celebrate our summit. Walking through town in the afternoon we were stocked up on and sampled the fine Swiss chocolate made locally. If you visit us in Chicago, you might just be privy to our stash if any remains by the time we get home. Our only regret from Switzerland is that we did not have more time there. Alas, we will just have to travel back again for some skiing and maybe even a skydive! We are on the way to Munich, Germany right now. Speeding through the Swiss countryside on a fast train is fine by us as our legs are in much need of a days rest.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Italy Part II - Florence

Happy Easter!

Leaving Rome on Friday and traveling by a very fast, efficient train to Florence left us wondering why the US has not invested more in high speed trains. We digress...Florence is a jewel and we were more than happy to spend Easter weekend in the city that is home to the Duomo, David, the Uffizi and much more.

Florence is also the final resting place for 4,202 American soldiers, including mAdd Imagey grandfather, who were killed in World War II. On April 21st, 1945 my grandpa was shot down and killed outside the city. He is buried at the American Military Cemetery in Florence. Deb and I had the honor to visit his grave on April 2nd which marked the 67th anniversary of his marriage to my grandmother. The cemetery is just outside the city and sits on the side of a beautiful wooded hill that overlooks a small river. It is quiet, incredibly well kept and run by a very friendly expatriate named Angelo. He was very interested in my grandfather's life and was helpful in our family's attempt to find the actual site of my grandpa's plane crash. American Military Cemetery's seem to be overlooked in many guidebooks (except Normandy), but in reality they are a really great place to visit as you are able to gain insight into history of a place, pay respect to those who defended our freedom and are Visiting his grave has been on my list of the things to do for many years and it will go down as one of the highlights of our trip.

Saturday was spent wandering aimlessly through the ancient streets of Florence, with a stop to see David completed by Michelangelo in 1504. Hands down the most impressive piece of art we have ever seen. Fueled by another delicious Italian pizza and red wine we continued on our way around the Duomo, up to Fort Belvieder (which is no longer open but is not marked anywhere to inform travelers of this), over the Ponte Vecchio and back again. Every corner brings a different church, a new alley to explore, a new gelato shop that is just waiting for Deb to taste test.

Sunday morning began with a lovely parade outside our hotel with Italians in traditional clothes, trumpets and drums galore. Next came fireworkers, a dove rocketed down the aisle, clapping and more fireworks were not a show we attended but the beginning of the Easter Sunday mass. It was quite the spectacle and unlike any other mass we have ever attended. The mass itself was beautiful inside the green and red marbled Cathedral. Unfortunately brunch is not a meal over here in Italy so we sat down to a traditional Italian meal for our Easter dinner together, which happened to be the best meal of our trip. Delicious homemade fettuccine for Deb and Spaghetti with mussels and a veal loin for Joe. Of course there was a stop at yet another Gelato shop to top of the delicious meal and to make-up for the lack of Easter candy. An Easter Sunday that will not soon be forgotten.

Tomorrow we head to Cinque Terre for a hike through the five villages before forging ahead to Switzerland on Wednesday. Our days are quickly dwindling before our eyes and although we are looking forward to being home, visiting with friends and family, and not living out of a backpack we are sad to see our time abroad coming to an end. Italy has been a magnificent stop along the road, one that has quickly won our hearts, and a place we hope to return to because seven days is not nearly enough.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Part I - Rome

From fountains to fettuccine and everything between, we tried our best to do Rome and all that it has to offer. The city is amazing and should be added to your list of places to visit if you never have. We arrived on Monday and visited our first church (Catholic that is) since leaving home in October. St. John's in Laterno was beautiful and the history of the church is incredibly interesting. Of course we indulged in pasta, wine and the always delicious Gelato!

Tuesday was dedicated to all things Roman. Colisseum, the Forum, Palatine Hills, Circus Maximus, etc. The simple fact is that Rome dictated for a very long time how the world ran and the influence of this city is felt to this day in most everywhere. We enjoyed the cool spring weather as we tramped around, through and over all sorts of ancient sites. What we enjoyed most about Rome is that the city has found a harmony between its past and the future. Its not uncommon to find anicent ruins next door to a Apple Store or sitting on the Spanish steps watching people shop at Gucci.

Wednesday was spent at the Vatican and touring the many museum's and galleries that are housed on the grounds. A little known fact is that Vatican City is the world's smallest commonwealth. One would think that such a title means the place can be walked in total in a short time. That is not the case at all. We spent nearly 5 hours in the various museums, enjoying sculptures, paintings and religious relics and maybe saw ½ of all there is to see. St. Peter's Square and St. Peter's Cathedral awe inspiring and we spent a few hours just enjoying the two places. Finishing our tour in the Sistine Chapel was the proverbial icing on the cake.

Our one goal for Thursday was to secure tickets to mass that evening with the Pope. We arrived at the US Bishops office for visitors to the Vatican around 9am to try and garner tickets from the friendly nun who was in charge of distribution. We were prepared to pull our all of our “Catholic Cards” (eg. Lifelong Catholics, graduates of Catholic Universities, employees of a Catholic organization, Catholic Sunday school teachers) in order to get tickets that were in short supply. The simple act of opening a door for a stranger as we entered the office was all we really needed to do. As Joe began the “we are Catholic and need tickets” sales pitch, the woman we opened the door for turned and offered us two extra tickets she had. Tickets acquired! We are pretty sure we could have got tickets without the stranger's kindness as it turned out the nun was from Minnesota!

Anyway, with tickets in hand we enjoyed a morning coffee at the Trevi Fountain (a coin was thrown into it to ensure our return to Rome), gelatto on the Spanish Steps and an afternoon snack at the Pantheon as well as a stroll around the Piazza Novanna. Around 2pm we headed to St. Peter's to get in line for mass, but quickly found out that mass as at St. John's in Laterno and raced to get in line there. As the mass hour drew near the crowds got bigger and we soon found ourselves in a sea of people. When the gates opened it was impossible for us to even walk, we just got carried by the current of bodies to the door. Thankfully, we got into the church, no seat, but we were able to enjoy the beautiful Holy Thursday mass with the Pope. Another delicious dinner ended a near perfect day in Rome.

We departed Rome on Friday morning for Florence. Rome was spectacular and our sore feet can attest to all there is to do and see in the city.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Yasa! Our week long exploration of Greece is over, but will not be forgotten. Our long journey home got off to a great start when we landed in Athens last Sunday. Exploring the city which brought us everything from Gyros to Democracy was a blast. Graffiti and roaming bands of youth selling knock off designer bags and purses was the only hint of lawlessness that we saw. The police presence in central Athens was very strong as protests continue on a daily basis because of the faltering economy, but nothing arose during our time there.

We toured the Acropolis and were amazed by the enormity of the different buildings. The Parthenon and surroundings temples are undergoing renovation, but this did not deter from the beauty of the place. A side trip to Hadrians Gate and the Parliament also impressed us. Ancients Agora's (marketplace) and numerous ruins dot the city were always fun to stop at and speculate what the function was. We also spent an afternoon at the Archeological Museum of Athens and walked out of there with a significant understanding the many people's and cultures that have shaped Greece over the centuries. We worked Athens over pretty good in two days, but definitely took some time to enjoy a peaceful park and lots of Greek food!

Life was moving so fast that we just had to head to an island to slow the trip down (poor us, right?). On Wednesday we took a ferry from Athens to the Santorini, better known as postcard island. If you have seen pictures of Greece you have probably seen Santorini. Bright white buildings, blue chapels dotted amongst them and a beautiful sea that surrounds it all. Well, the postcards are spot on in the landscape that they capture. This is one of the most beautiful places we have seen in our travels. The island was split up by a huge volcanic eruption a few centuries squared ago and a Caldera was formed. Basically the middle of the island sank into the ocean and you can walk around the ring. Its a spectacular site.

The island is just starting to wake up for the tourist crush that comes in April and we are glad to have been here during a quiet time. We stayed on far south of the island, home to the black and red sand beaches. One day was spent wandering the small towns and beaches near our hotel and just enjoying the quiet crash of the Aegean Sea. We also tackled two big hikes during our time. One was more of a climb up a 600 meter mountain that our hotel is at the base of. At the top is the ancient town of Thira or at least whats left of it. It was a great climb and having ruins and the top of the mountain to ourselves on a beautiful day was made all the better by the great loaf of cheese bread we had for lunch. The bread was purchased from a small bakery that we found our first night and literally have gone to everyday for treats of all sorts. One night we had Backlava and Cheesecake for dinner, no joke and no regrets!

Our other big walk was from the main town of Fira to the postcard perfect town of Oia. It was a 13km hike and took us all of 3 hours to do. It was the best hike we have done to date. We were tired, but grateful for the delicious Gyro and Mythos beers at the end and it was all topped off by a beautiful sunset over the crater of the volcano.

We decided and needed (blisters and sore calves) to take it easy our last day. Renting a 4 wheeler seemed like the best way to see the remaining parts of the island and drive around we did! It was a blast to visit some of the remote beaches and to cruise the roads of Santorini at blistering speed of 20mph. The day ended with our 5th gyro of the trip and another beautiful sunset that was hopefully captured appropriately in one of the 1,004 pictures we took!

We are off to Rome now and will be there until Friday. One thing is for certain, Greece has not seen the last of the Wronka's and our bet is that Italy will soon make that list as well!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SE Asia Takeaway

This is the end my friends, well, not quite the end. It is the end of our time in SE Asia and trying to summarize our feelings, experiences, impressions, etc. is damn near impossible. Leaving Thailand over 3 weeks ago and traveling through Laos, Cambodia and most recently Vietnam was simply, incredible. We thought we would share with you some of what we will takeaway from our time in SE Asia.

Teaching English is harder than it seems. Teaching children is wonderful. Teaching children is tiring. Teaching children is inspiring. Buses are a great way to travel. 16 hours on a bus will make your mind unravel. Okay, no more rhymes...

Talking with the passenger next to you is always more interesting than listening to your iPod. Riding a moto-taxi in Bangkok is a great way to see your life flash before your eyes. Crossing the street in Bangkok and Saigon is like Frogger in real life. Sidewalks in SE Asia are for driving as well as walking. The locally brewed beer is always fresh. Everyone should SCUBA dive once in their life. Thai food is the most spicy in all of SE Asia. White rice is served at every meal and goes with everything. Anything can be eaten with chopsticks.

Sleeping on an island in the Mekong River is a good way to meet locals. The temples of Angkor Wat are much cooler in person and much cooler in the morning. Sunscreen haters will melt on beaches in Vietnam. Learning “thank you” in any language gets you a long way. Learning to say “beer please” will get you a good laugh and beer to boot.

A smile needs no translation. Good people are everywhere. Every family, everywhere, has “that” relative. A unfamiliar smell for you might be another person's favorite dish. Anything grilled and on a stick is good. Soda can be drunk from a plastic bag. Don't knock Karaoke until you have tried it.

Gummy worms and beef jerky are staple foods on some trips. Pointing at another person's dish in a restaurant is the best way to order. The longer the line at a food stall, the better the food. Sunsets never get old. Walking a city is the best way to see it. Not all airports are the same and that goes for restrooms as well.

Our accent is funny. Asking for directions is the best way to get lost. Asking for directions is the best way to meet a local. Sleeper trains do not always mean you get sleep. Missing your stop is a blessing in disguise. Black snow is not so cool when it gets in your beer. Sugarcane trucks are freight trains on four wheels. Bugs in a room are better than geckos in your pants. Hangovers suck wherever you are.

“Yes, no, okay?” is a legitimate answer to questions in Thailand. Bargaining with toothless women is half the fun of buying a souvenir. Impoverished people are the richest in spirit. Traveling with your spouse brings untold rewards to a marriage. You find yourself and each other on the road. A good laugh is the easiest way to say “I'm sorry.”

War devastates families, countries and the environment. The survivors pick up the pieces and move ahead with grace and strength. The spirit of a country resides in the people. A mother or father's love is all children want. A significant distance and time away really does make the heart ache for friends and family.

SE Asia will never be just a trip we took or a region we visited. It was home for us and will live within us forever. The above are just a few of the takeaways we easily recalled while sitting in three airports on our way to Europe। Many more will surface in the days and years to come, but we wanted to share a few so you know what this time has meant to us.

We arrived in Athens after 24+ hours of travel. Our bed is rock hard and there is a pigeon sitting on our window sill looking quite suspicious in our opinion. Stay tuned for the updates from Europe.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Bus Ride

Painted on the side of the bus were the words Express Sleeper Bus. Two-thirds of this advertisement were false. Express it was not, sleeping was for a select few and yes it was a bus. Our trip from Hoi An to Nha Trang was supposed to take 12 hours, departing at 6pm and arriving in the seaside town at 6am.

As the bus pulled out of Hoi An something was different we thought. Maybe it was the tiny seat/beds that were not made with giants like us in mind. Or maybe it was the fact that no one checked our tickets. It was also strange that there was no toilet on board and unfortunately we did not realize this until two bottles of water and two cans of soda were consumed. Just as the empty water bottle started looking like a port-a-potty the luck of the Irish kicked in and we stopped for a break. Sprinting to the the toilet was an easy task, but when I opened the door I was greeted by 10 chickens roosting happily on the floor and on the sink. Yep, they kept chickens in the restroom, needless to say I passed on the chicken fried rice they were serving at the restaurant. Thankfully there was another toilet not being used by any other barnyard animals.

The bus quickly grew quiet as most people settled in for the night. Struggling to find a comfortable position on seats that measured about 18 inches wide and 5 feet long was an ugly display of athleticism on our part. Of course the Vietnamese guy in front of us was snoring almost immediately and jealous rage set in around 11pm as he never woke once to the many bumps and frequent stops the express bus seemed to be making. We have grown used to buses stopping to pick up and drop off locals who only ride for a few miles and it didn't really seem odd to me when we stopped again at about 1:15am. It got interesting at about 1:20am when I realized we were not moving again and in fact the bus was not even running. I looked out the window to see a sign the simply read garage, uh oh. The driver and his assistant were outside the bus looking at the front left tire and after a few minutes a very tired looking gentlemen emerged from the house connected to the garage. He brought with him a jack and torque wrench, unless you drive in NASCAR this is not a good sign.

As the bus was jacked up and the wheel removed most of the people got off to either smoke or just get some fresh air. I, along with most of the other men on the bus gathered around the mechanic as he removed the tire and inspected under the bus. Having no expertise in the area of bus repair there was little I could do to help, so I did the next best thing and did play by play with the English guy next to me. Saying things like, “that is a torque wrench, those are lug-nuts and the hubcap looks ok” was about the extent. When the Englishmen heard me say “hubcap” he laughed and said we call that a “tire shield in England”. Then and there I thanked our forefathers for winning back 1776 because I will be damned if I ever called a hubcap a “tire shield”.

Anyway, it seemed that removing the wheel and looking under the bus solved the issue that brought us to a halt because around 1:45am the bus was back on the road. At 1:47am the bus was stopped outside another garage and in an almost exact replay the driver and his assistant were back out to the wheel and a even more tired looking guy was emerging from his house. This time he woke up his wife to help him carry out the jack and the torque wrench. As the men gathered to watch the repairs and continue novice speculation the guy next to me was Vietnamese and he started to talk about the problem, I think. His gestures did not make it any clearer to me about what had happened, but I nodded in agreement nonetheless. I even offered up my idea that maybe the flux capacitor was broken and he nodded in agreement. Broken vehicles can bring just about anyone together and I think if Obama and Kim Jung Il , Iran's Ahmadinejad and maybe Castro all took a road trip the world could get better much quicker.

Thankfully, mechanic number two had the solution and we got on the road a little after 2:15am. Arriving in Nha Trang only an hour late was fine by us because it meant we could get off the Express Sleeper Bus. St. Patricks Day was celebrated with little fanfare here, but we enjoyed a few beers on the beach to honor the day. We are going to give SCUBA diving a try tomorrow, hopefully the green beer from tonight will not affect the dive tomorrow!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hue Vietnam

Our last stop in the grand tour of SE Asia is Vietnam. We started in the middle of the country, Hue (pronounced “way”) on Wednesday. Arriving to 60 degree weather was a shock to our systems as its been nearly 6 months since we have felt anything less than 75. This is not a complaint, we are fully aware that winter is still right outside many of our readers doors. Anyway, Hue was great. I am an avid reader of Vietnam War history and to finally visit some of the places I have read so much about has been a treat. Deb has been a trooper about it all, getting into the history as much, if not more, than me. We toured the Citadel and the Imperial City in Hue on our first day. Both places saw heavy fighting and still show some signs of the war today. Our second day was spent on a tour that had stops at Khe Sahn firebase, Doc Mieu base, the Rockpile, Camp Carol and the Vinh Moc tunnels on the China Sea. Going into the tunnels was an adventure as they were designed for people about 6 inches shorter than us. During the war there military dropped six tons of bombs per person in the city of Vinh Moc, the tunnels were built by the civilian population so they would not have to abandon their home. The ingenuity and impressive engineering skills of the people was not lost on us as we descended nearly 30 meters under the earth. It was a very cool, very insightful experience.

We also crossed the former north/south border and like any good visitor, had our picture taken straddling the two sides. I will not bore you with any more war history. However, it is worth noting that for the amount bombs dropped and the shear devastation that America inflicted on the mainly civilian population, the people of each place could not have been more welcoming. We were greeted warmly and without the slightest hint of animosity by the Vietnamese people who, in my opinion, have every right to hold a grudge against Americans. We enjoyed our tour with the very knowledgeable Mr. Duy and our fearless driver Thinh who got us from the Laotian boarder to the South China Sea and back to Hue without a scratch!

Our time in Hue and the previous week in Cambodia wore us out. So, we are taking a bit of a vacation from I guess you could say, vacation. How spoiled are we, right? We are now in Hoi An, a beautiful little city nestled a few miles from the South China Sea. We arrived on Saturday and immediately hit the beach, today was the same and tomorrow won't be any different. It is great here, the water is refreshing, the beer is always cold and everyone is always smiling. We have not been total bums in Hoi An. Deb is getting a business suit made by a local tailor for a very good price and the simple act of choosing who to buy from was an adventure in of itself. We have enjoyed two really nice dinner's in the Old Town area of the city. There are no cars allowed in the area and the streets are lit with many different colored lanterns that go hand in hand with gentle music that escapes from many of the restaurants. Its been a nice little break from traveling trail. We jump back into the mix on Tuesday when we head for the city of Nha Trang. Although, we are on the beach and have snorkeling and fishing tours planned...Maybe the vacation from the vacation will continues until we head to Europe.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cambodia won us over, no question about it. Like an underdog in your favorite movie, the country is making a comeback after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge years. We have met numerous people that recall with ease the pain of those years. Their children and grandchildren are working tirelessly to get Cambodia back on track. There is contrast to be found at every corner. Internet cafes are situated next to stalls of chickens and pigs. Giant cranes tower over bamboo shacks that date back to the great Angkor empire. Roads made for ox-cart travel are now overrun with scooters, semi trucks and buses carrying tourists and locals alike. The Cambodian's we have met are optimistic about their future, however, they are still stunted from the genocide of nearly 3 million people during the reign of Pol Pot.

Our best experience so far in this country has come from a surprising source. Many would vote that the great temples of Angkor Wat or the haunting grounds of the Killing Fields were their favorites. The Cambodian people top our list. We have been blessed to meet a number of smart, energetic and truly friendly residents along the way. Joe spent the better part of a 5 hour bus ride talking with a man whose father had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. The conversation ranged from his personal story to the history and future of the country. No where in our travels have we met people so willing to share their feelings about a tragic period in their countries history. Our lunch time conversation with young men working at our guesthouse shed light on the hopes and worries of the 20 something generation. Meeting with Joe's friend from Ireland who now works as a lawyer at an NGO in Phenom Penh allowed us to quiz another western about the development plans for Cambodia. It has been the conversations with people that have really brought Cambodia's past and present to life for us.

The temples of Angkor Wat were awesome. Rising out of the jungle and surrounded by incredible pools of water, the whole complex is overwhelming in its enormity. Lucky for us, we had 3 days to play Indiana Jones. The most amazing part of all the temples is ingenuity the ancient people had. Massive amounts of stone were carved from the surrounding hills and used to build magnificent temples that would be considered skyscrapers in many cities today. The intricate carvings on the walls that depict ancient life rival any photograph one could have taken. The temples might be abandoned, but they are far from dead.

Phenom Penh has seen the worst of the worst in rulers. Pol Pot's twisted vision of a socialist utopia resulted in the slaughter of millions. Less than 30 years ago that city was a ghost town. Today, the city is bursting at the seams with growth. Businesses, restaurants, schools, etc. are establishing themselves in the very places people once fled. Our tour of the S-21 prision complex brought to life the brutal tactics employed by the Khmer Rouge. A dinner at a local restaurant that employs at-risk youth showed us the that Cambodian's are unwilling to be pulled back to those terrible days. Their collective optimism is moving the city forward and making it easy for traveler's like us to say this our favorite place yet.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Southern Laos and Siem Reap

Over 4 months ago we left the states to journey around the world. Our travels brought us to the south island of New Zealand and then the work, more like incredible experience, began in Thailand. Last Friday marked the end of our time as teachers at Anuban Dan Chang. It was a sad goodbye, but it also was the start of our journey, albeit long, home. Today, we are in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Home to the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat. Before we arrived here we spent 3 days in Laos, specifically the Si Phon Don islands.

Laos was spectacularly beautiful. The people are infectiously nice and loved the idea of westerners visiting their country. We had the opportunity to drive from the Thai border to southern Laos in the back of a pickup truck with a few other travellers and 6 Laotian people. The journey to Si Phon Don was about 4 hours and along the way the Laotian people gave us a sample of local foods, all unknown to us but very good nonetheless. Arriving on the island of Don Dhet which rests in the middle of the mammoth Mekong river at sunset was breathtaking. We enjoyed some wonderful food, mainly fish and fresh fruit each day. The Mekong river is the lifeline for the people of these islands. It is their highway, their grocery store, shower and source of entertainment. We partook in a bit of everything. A local guide brought us on tour of the river and we were able to spot a few of the very rare Irrawidy Dolphins, less than two dozen of these fresh water dolphins exist in this part of the world. Biking and walking around two neighboring islands was a very rewarding second day and it was topped off by a stop at some impressive waterfalls. Beyond the natural beauty Laos, there is a sense among the people that life is too short to worry about the little things. Family is most important and enjoying the company of whoever happens to be around is a priority everywhere we went. The French colonized Laos and some of their influence can still be felt, mainly in the architecture and copious amounts of baguettes! We most definitely did not budget for enough time in Laos and hope to return one day.

Heading to Cambodia on Tuesday was a test of patience and endurance. We knew it would be a long trip as the roads in Laos and Cambodia are in pretty bad shape. The expected time of travel from Laos to Siem Reap was about 14 hours. 16 long, long hours later we arrived here. The bus stopped a number of times for no apparent reason and without explanation. Thankfully, we brought good books and a fully charged iPod to get us through the journey. Siem Reap is simply amazing. Consider this. Less than 15 years ago the country was on complete lock down by the vicious Khmer Rouge. Over 2 million people were murdered during their reign of terror and the country's growth ground to a halt in 20+ years of Khmer Rouge rule. Much to their credit, the Cambodian's are working very hard to catch up to their regional neighbors today. Judging by the accommodation we are in and the superb facilities at Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, the country is quickly getting back on it's feet. We have spent two full days touring the city and the temples. It is nearly impossible to describe the enormity of Angkor Wat proper. You can see it from space is the best description we have come across yet. A third day of visiting the complex will maybe allow us to say we saw half of all the grounds. Built over the course of 5 centuries the temples are remarkable in their design and workmanship. We thought it would get a bit redundant to see temple after temple, we were wrong. Watching the sunset last night from the top of a auxiliary temple was stunning.

Today, we visited Tonle Sap lake and were able to get a first hand glimpse at the community that literally lives on the water. Floating homes, schools and stores make up this small city. Unfortunately, they are very poor and much to our disappointment the money we paid for the tour of the lake does not go to the people. It is one of the many communities that are yet to fully benefit from the tourism boom hitting other parts of the country. We gave a few dollars to the children working at a small store in the hope they could buy food for the day. It is days like this that allow us to fully appreciate the many, many blessing we have in life. Our day also included a visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum. Built by a former soldier who has now dedicated his life to the safe removal of the estimated 2 million mines still littering the Cambodian countryside. It was very interesting and sobering at the same time. We hope the few souvenirs purchased helps the 30 plus orphans that reside on the backside of the museum. Our days are filled with wonders and we look forward to many more to come. Tomorrow we will begin the day before dawn to see sunrise over Angkor Wat. Sunday we hit the road again to head to Phnom Penh. It is hard to imagine we have so much more to see!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Farewell to Thailand

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehn, goodbye. We are down to one last day of teaching and it is hard to believe our time is nearing an end in Thailand. The children have been presenting us with small gifts all week, ranging from homemade cards to flowers and the most sentimental of all, a small key chain from a second grader who literally had nothing to give. She removed it from her backpack where it had been all year and with much care placed it in a folded piece of paper that simply said “miss you goodbye” and gave it to us. That simple gesture might just be the best way to sum up our time here. It is the small things that have made our experience amazing. Our morning bike ride that is punctuated by shouts of “good morning teacha” from students on the back of scooters or pickup trucks will be missed dearly when we are sitting in gridlock back in Chicago. Quick games of paper, rock, scissors throughout the day with many students might be the best form of communication for everyone, forget e-mail and Facebook. Walking in the blazing sun to get ice cream with our students is surely going be missed by Deb. Our time in the classroom, the reason we moved across the world, will never be forgotten.

We have had dinner with a different group of friends every night this week and each relationship has been a blessing for us. Meeting other foreign teachers from China, England, New Zealand, Ghana,
the Phillipines and Burma was not in the plans, but we sure are grateful we met them. Their perspective and more importantly, their friendship has made our time here even more amazing.

We lived in Thailand. It was not a tour or a vacation, but our home for nearly 5 months. It was home because of the people. The vendors at the market, the owner of our favorite coffee shop that treated us to many dinners and friends who helped us navigate the bus system. The children and the teachers at school made it more than just work. It is the people we were surrounded by that made it home. Our travels in the coming weeks will be no less than spectacular, but they will be just that, travels. We lived in Thailand and know that Thailand will live within us forever.

It would be impossible for us to account for all the adventures we had. The big ones like New Year's Eve on Phi Phi island or visiting the ancient ruins in Ayyuthaya are most easily recalled. The first trip on a long tail boat or a tuk-tuk ride in Bangkok will remembered with great laughter. It will be the little adventures that bring a small smile to our face and should you happen to see it, ask us. Reliving the time a little guy was arm wrestling me while I typed an e-mail might not sound like an adventure to you, but it was to me. Deb singing 5 little monkeys 5 times straight with 45 students won't be turned into a major motion picture, but it will be one of the most replayed memories of her time here. It will be the key chain moments that will stay with us for years to come.

Saying goodbye is the best way to measure how much an experience or someone has meant to you and this will be one of our hardest goodbyes' ever.