Monday, December 31, 2012

Thank You To Travel Sabbatical Fans!

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts to all of our Travel Sabbatical fans for following our trip around the world.  It wouldn't have been the same without all of your encouragement.  A blessed and happy new year in  2013.  Stay tuned for more travel adventures in the future.  Until then, be safe and keep on travelin'!

Travel Sabbatical: Our Favorites 2012

Until we returned to the States, we had no idea how many people were actually following us on our adventures around the world!  We are utterly amazed and grateful from the bottom of our hearts that so many people took the time to read our blog.  We are truly honored.

Having had a few weeks to meet back up with our family and friends, the number one question has been, "Where was your favorite place?"  The difficulty in answering this question may come as a surprise...we had so many favorites!  We definitely enjoyed experiencing all the famous sites, but in general, the most memorable times have been anytime we were able to get to know the locals.  As we wrap-up 2012, this list of Travel Sabbatical favorites may help answer the question, "What was your favorite ___(fill in the blank)___?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reuniting with the Dog

The moment we've been anticipating after a 12-hour drive home to Kansas City from Alabama.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Travel Sabbatical Insights, A Poem

The Holstee Manifesto.
As our transition back into "real life" approaches, it's natural for any extended traveler to begin having a personal philosophical debate about their experiences, trying to somehow articulate it into some deep meaningful expression before it all gets drowned out by the rat race of life all over again.   After all, doesn't it seem somewhat shallow if we didn't at least entertain the idea that we learned some life lessons from our travels rather than treating it as just one big vacation?

The following is an interesting excerpt from Notebooks by Albert Camus, a French writer and philosopher that spent his life addressing this conundrum between human need to seek inherent value and meaning in everything and the reality that we sometimes don't.  His philosophy of absurdism (no joke, look it up), may have made him cynical, but I appreciate this less romanticized explanation of the value of travel.
"What gives value to travel is fear.  It is a fact that, at a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country...we are seized by a vague fear, and an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.  This is the most obvious benefit of travel...This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.  There is no pleasure in traveling, and I look upon it more as an occasion for spiritual testing.  Pleasure takes us away from ourselves in the same way as distraction...Travel, brings us back to ourselves."
However, towards the end of our trip, my mind - under pressure - did begin racing with the inevitable (and usually unanswerable) heavy-hitting questions: what does this all mean, did I learn anything, did it change my life, etc.  Ironically, writing down any thoughts in complete sentences and paragraphs didn't always capture the correct sentiment without losing the simple meaning in all of the rambling.  I really didn't intend for a poem to develop (especially since I'm ignorant of any guidelines on how to write a proper one), but it seemed the most organic way to jot down my Travel Sabbatical insights. 

Certainly, I will cringe at my own sentimentality when I re-read this in the future.  Oh well, it's how I saw it at the moment.

Happy New Year everyone.

Travel Sabbatical Insights, A Poem

I want time to stand still,
To stay in perpetual freedom.
I want time to pass quickly,
To escape from this vagabond life. 

Routine, I can't recall.
Discipline, I left it all behind.

How ignorant I am.
How naive I've been.
In my world view.
My cocoon.

Ecuador.  You surprised me.
Jerusalem.  You enlightened me.
Buenos Aires.  You nourished me.
Chiang Mai.  You cast a spell on me.
Cambodia.  Your resilience inspired me.
Vietnam. Your beauty stunned me.
Istanbul.  Your grandeur seduced me.
Tangier. Your impenetrable facade mystified me.
The Balkans.  Your ongoing struggles challenged me.

Witness to history unfolding.
Sometimes repeating.
"Those who cannot remember the past
are condemned to repeat it."

Personal Freedoms.
Due Process.
No longer just words to me.

I've seen a lot.
Not seen enough.
Done a lot.
More to do. 
Met many.
But only a few.
Learned daily.
Experienced much.
Took less for granted.
Left with more appreciation.

How alive I feel.
For my mom who couldn't.
For my friend who didn't.

This was no vacation.
A career break.
A gap year.
A trip around the world.

Was it a life changer?  
Or a life staller? 
Only time will tell, but right now, 

I want time to stand still,
To feed my curiosity.
I want time to pass quickly,
To acknowledge that new perspective.

Only time will tell.
The insights from our
Travel Sabbatical.

-Akiko Kubo

Thursday, December 20, 2012

An Outing to Gadsden, Alabama

Alabama Home Sweet Home
It's been a hectic week since we rushed home to bury our father.  With all the emotional exhaustion compounded by the persistent jet lag, yesterday was a good day to temporarily forget handling any of the post-death details and get mom out of the house for a drive down to Gadsden, Alabama.

Even after traveling the world, the countryscape of northeastern Alabama is still one of the most beautiful and peaceful places we know.  The rolling hills, naked wintry trees, mountain streams, cows grazing, and rolls of hay is an American sight that we have missed. 

Pink sunset, Crossville, Alabama.
We doubt Gadsden is on anyone's travel destinations, but if you happen upon it, you'll want to stroll down this very well-preserved, old-timey American downtown that looks like a flashback from half a century ago...

Friday, December 14, 2012

(Bitter)sweet Home Alabama

Grand old pecan tree
that graces the center yard
of our parents' home in

Hello 4 am.  Jetlag is always a good companion for some blogging.  Here goes...

We're relieved to be back home stateside, but it's not how we predicted our Travel Sabbatical to end.  Our dad's sudden decline in health and passing is still shocking and confirms that anything can happen, so plan and live accordingly.  

Start of our 30-hour journey back from Tokyo to Alabama.  Will we make it back in time?
Even though we didn't make it back  in time to say goodbye, we feel very blessed.  Had it not been for us quitting our jobs to start our travels in May, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to spend 2 precious weeks with our parents in Alabama before we departed.  Ironically, we stayed in touch more via FaceTime while we were traveling than when we were "too busy" with our lives at home.  We're blessed that we were able to give him a glimpse into our adventures.  He avidly kept up with our travel blog and was very proud of what we had accomplished.

"Welcome Home!" said
Homeland Security upon our
arrival to stateside at LAX.
Dad's passing affirms our decision for taking a career break to pursue this dream, as originally inspired by the untimely death of loved ones already gone.   There's no regret because we accepted the inherent risks when we decided not to wait around for "what might have been".
Thank you to our Travel Sabbatical family for your thoughts and prayers.  It's been a truly (Bitter)sweet Home Alabama homecoming.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Things We've Never Said in Tokyo Before (Our Travel Sabbatical)

As we prepare our transition back to "real life" after 7 months, we are unwinding in Tokyo and catching up with Akiko's dad.  Tokyo is Akiko's second home and Mike's 6th time visiting, so this place is not a new experience for us.  We thought we had Tokyo figured out, but how funny that everything is relative and subject to perspective, especially after experiencing all the places we've been on our Travel Sabbatical.  

Here's a few things we've never uttered before on our trips to Tokyo...'til now:
  • "Wow, it's so calm and orderly here."
  • "Why are we waiting for the light to turn?  I think we should just cross the street now."
  • When approaching any shop, vendor: "Irasshaimase (Welcome!) is so much better than 'You buy sometheeeeeeng!'"
  • Observing cars driving down narrow streets: "Pretty sure they could squeeze in one more lane and at least 2 buses, and 50 motorbikes into that street."
  • On riding the bus from the airport: "Really? It goes directly and non-stop to Kichijoji?  That's amazing."
  • "I bet I could negotiate that train ticket down from ¥160 down to ¥40."
  • "What do you mean it's a fixed price?!"
  • "Hmmmmm.  $10 beer versus 50 cent beer.  Missing the sidewalk beer in Saigon."
  • "The streets are so clean, organized, and the shops so pretty, I feel like I'm on a movie set."
  • If Southeast Asia adopted Japan's trash separating system: "These boxes get thrown in that street; these plastic bags get thrown on another street; and styrofoam can only be thrown out the window on Mondays and Thursdays."
  • "Dear tap water: I will never take you for granted again."
  • "Are you sure they're open during their siesta time (usually noon until 1 or 2)?
  • "I feel like a paranoid freak, holding onto my travel pouch like someone cares.  I forget no one wants my shit.  Everyone has a better iPhone, a Japanese passport, and way more money in their wallet than I do."
  • "They could soooo accommodate more customers at this restaurant if they exchanged their nice furniture for short red plastic tables and stools."
  • "Why not."
  • "Can't believe those dogs are on a leash."
  • "Seriously?  You actually have plenty of change for my large bills?  Weird..."
  • "When the train conductor says its a one-minute wait, it's probably a true 60-second wait, instead of a one-minute-means-at-least-ten-minute-wait."
  • "Toilet paper.  Oh, how I love thee."
There's probably more, but here it is.  Welcome back to civilization.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kawagoe, "Little Tokyo" Near Tokyo?

What?  There's a "Little Tokyo" near Tokyo?!  Well, actually, there's a "Little Edo" in Kawagoe, which is a suburb of Tokyo.  Edo was the original name before the city became Tokyo, so technically, it is "Little Tokyo" near Tokyo.

Kawagoe is a little town full of traditional Edo Period (1603-1867) architecture in the Kurazukuri Zone. Most of the Japanese clay-walled warehouse buildings are now stores catering to every tourist's dream of traditional Japanese souvenirs, foods, and crafts.  Besides its throwback era charm, this town's claim to fame is the Kitain Temple, the old bell tower that still chimes 3 times a day, and for some reason, a variety of treats made from sweet potatoes.  Hmmmm.

It is quite the tourist trap, and recently, Seibu Shinjuku train line added a reserved seat Limited Express train line from Shinjuku or Takadanonaba to Honkawagoe Station.  For an extra ¥410/pp, this cuts the transit time from 70 minutes on a local train down to 20 minutes.  Totally worth it in our opinion.  

If you find yourself needing to kill about half a day in Tokyo, head to the outskirts of Tokyo and wander around the "Little Edo" streets of Kawagoe!  It's quite charming.

Here are some photos...

A Very Important Visit

Today was a deeply personal trip.  Most of our Travel Sabbatical fans will not find this the least bit interesting or relevant, but our visit to Akiko's mom's gravesite was very important to us at the conclusion of our trip.  We think she was our guardian angel throughout our journey, keeping us safe from harm and illnesses, so we wanted to pay our respects and gratitude.

Akiko's mom, Yoko, was somewhat of an adventurous vagabond herself.  Akiko probably got the travel itch from her.  While living in the States, it was nothing for her parents to pack-up the station wagon and aimlessly drive off with the kids to explore the vast open road and national parks.  They also explored Southeast Asia during their 3 years spent in Singapore.  Although her full-time job in Tokyo prevented Yoko from traveling too much, she was an avid hiker and skier who liked to be in the mountains of Japan as often as possible.  Once retired, she was able to realize some of her dreams of trekking the Swiss Alps and witnessing the Matterhorn.  In fact, she went to Thailand way before we did and she's visited countries that we've not yet seen including Brazil, New Zealand, parts of the Canadian Rockies, etc.

So, it was with great shock and sadness that such an active person would be afflicted by Lou Gehrig's Disease or ALS, robbing her of her ability to move and eventually breathe.

1974?, Japan.

Tokyo's Current #1 Attraction is 451.2 Meters in the Sky

The 634 meter
Tokyo Skytree casts a
shadow onto Tokyo
We officially made it all the way around the world when we finally arrived at Haneda International Airport in Tokyo on Friday morning, December 7th at around 4 am after being delayed in Incheon, Korea for about 5 hours due to a huge snowstorm from which the airport was still trying to recover from.  Amazingly, after approximately 18 flights during our entire trip, this was the first and last snafu we had with any flights.  We secretly wished our flight would get canceled so we would have to spend the night/day in Korea and get one more country under our sabbatical belt.  It didn't happen that way, and we were actually glad to have finally arrived at Akiko's dad's house around 7 am.  We were planning on a relaxing week, unwinding from all our backpacking.

We already spent 2 full weeks in Tokyo back in May when we officially started our Travel Sabbatical 7 months ago, not to mention this is Akiko's second home and Mike has visited at least 6 times.  So, it would seem that we've exhausted almost every touristy thing there is to do in Tokyo over the years.  Not so, especially when they keep building new things!

Our "Next, and Last Stop" of our Travel Sabbatical, Ogikubo in Tokyo where we started this RTW adventure. 
Incheon International Airport, Korea.  Delays due to snow and ice. 
The much anticipated Tokyo Skytree actually opened on May 22nd, 2012 while we were here previously, but advanced tickets were already sold out for the next several months.  We didn't have a chance, nor did we feel much appreciation for long lines and the feel of a packed observation deck at 1500 feet up in the air.  

Akiko's dad, Shinji, and Mike with Skytree view from Oshiage Station. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

8-Months Travel Sabbatical, Within Budget at $50,000

No, we didn't win the lottery or have a trust fund.  We were an average middle-class DINK (dual income, no kids) household, living below our means, saving money the old-fashioned way to be spent on an event such as a travel sabbatical.

At first, we didn't know how to budget for an 8-month trip, but we took a stab in the dark by figuring out what our average daily cost might be, plus any outstanding bills to maintain our house, private health insurance, and our dog while we were away.

After 8-months and a few unexpected home repairs and veterinary bills, we are astounded by the accuracy of our $50,000 budget!  Of course, human nature dictates that expenses almost always expand up to a set budget.  Isn't that correct?  So, if we had set our daily goal at $100 instead of $150, we would've probably been able to achieve that, albeit a little less comfortably.  We're glad we set a realistic goal that fit our lifestyle and stuck to it.  We also had help from friends and friends of friends, who graciously provided us free lodging at some points of our journey.  We can't thank them enough. 

We can't remember the last time we heard these 2 words together, "Balanced Budget", yet here it is in USD:

Cost: A Luxurious Experience in Vietnam on a Backpacker Budget

We know that everyone spends differently, and a budget can be extremely variable; however, after leaving an area, we want to provide some perspective on the cost associated with staying there for anyone interested in doing a similar trip.  Our budget of $150/day (our initial lower target range was $100 but we are obviously nowhere close to that!) is for 2 people and does not include the $10,000 round-the-world flights (plus trip insurance) already paid for.  The budget also does not account for the bills we are continuing to pay at home.  The bulk of our budget allows for low-to-mid-range lodging in hostels, budget hotels, or guesthouses for a target of $60/double; meals/drinks; use of public transportation; and cost to do some sightseeing and/or activities.  At $150/day, we have found we are not depriving ourselves from any experiences; except that, as foodies, we aren't as liberal with our budget on finding the best and trendiest restaurants (which we haven't missed at all).  An article titled, "Set Your Daily Number" by the veteran travel bloggers from Married With Luggage confirms that a daily average is a simple strategy for setting and meeting a budget.  We've got in the habit of taking a few minutes to record our daily expenditure so we can make small adjustments along the way.

Total $4190 or $145/day!  We just finished traveling through our 3rd Southeast Asian country, Vietnam.  Normally, we would've expected the cost to be similar to Thailand and Cambodia where we spent ~$130/day, but we weren't sure after we splurged on a few travel details on our final leg of our round-the-world trip.

Incredibly, after a 3-day luxury cruise in Halong Bay, several overnight train rides, coughing up airfare to get back down to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in 2 hours instead of 3 days, and staying in mostly real hotels, we have managed to make it (barely) under our $150/day budget in Vietnam!  

Here's our cost breakdown.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Cruising the Bai Tu Long Bay (Northeast of Halong Bay) with IndochinaJunk, Inc.

Halong Bay. Ha Long means "descending dragon".  Local legend says that a family of dragons descended onto the bay to protect Vietnam from invaders by spitting large jade and jewels into the water, forming thousands of island barriers against the invaders.  Afterwards, the dragons decided to stay and make these waters their home.  We think you will quickly see that the islands are reminiscent of dragons resting in the water.  

Apparently, we saved the best experience for last! We think this UNESCO World Heritage site and 7 New Wonders of Nature is one of the most stunning natural landscapes we've seen so far on our trip. Right up there with Plitvice Lakes in Croatia.  Yes, Machu Picchu (Peru), Angkor Wat (Cambodia), and the rice terraces of Sapa (Vietnam) were also awe-inspiring, but they are largely man-made wonders.  The two thousand limestone formations that pepper the northernmost bay of Vietnam was formed naturally over millions of years through erosion.  Even more amazing are all the hidden caves and lakes inside these hollow islands, where many have yet to be discovered.  

Mike relaxing on the top deck
of Dragon's Pearl I junk cruise.
As a result, Halong Bay was definitely on our "must-see" list, but we didn't know how to best experience this place.  Do we just find transportation to Halong Bay on our own, then find a day boat to take us around?  Do we sign-up for a one or two night cruise?  Should we just go to Cat Ba island, the backpacker capital, and admire the limestone formations from the shore?

Although we prefer DIY travels, this is one place that is best experienced by joining a tour.  Unfortunately, it seems every hotel and business in Hanoi has a cousin or brother-in-law that supposedly runs a tour.  There are soooooo many tour operators to Halong Bay that it is hard to know what's legitimate and what's not.  After much research, we decided on a 3-day/2-night cruise through the less touristed Bai Tu Long Bay just northeast of Halong Bay for a full and unhurried experience.  

We wrote an unsolicited infomercial on how we researched and selected Indochina Junk as well as other options at the end of this blog.*