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!