April 27, 2011


I love Easter.  My love for this holiday always sneaks up on me – I forget how much I like it until the day comes.  It’s not only because Easter gives me an excuse to eat all that chocolate/meat/alcohol that was given up for 40 days prior. It’s more about how hopeful and positive the holiday is.  I love how it’s a relatively commercialism-free holiday.  Unless the Easter Bunny is involved, Easter is about being with family/friends and celebrating a new beginning.  It’s a reason to give a hug to your best friend, sit down for a big, lingering meal, or get dressed up in your finest and go to church with the family. 

In the Christian context, Easter is the day that Jesus rose from the dead and saved us from our sins – a reason to celebrate indeed.  However, even for those who don’t celebrate the holiday for any of numerous reasons, it can still be a happy day.  Easter seems to bring out the good in everyone that I interact with.  It makes me smile to see so many messages of goodwill spread out on Facebook, instead of the usual “30 minutes stuck in traffic, f***, I hate my life” type status updates that seem to show up on rainy Mondays.  Friends reach out to each other to wish a happy holiday. 

Maybe it’s because it feels like spring has finally arrived, could be a feeling of a new start, or perhaps it’s only the lingering sugar high from the huge Reese’s peanut butter egg I devoured on Sunday – but I can’t help but feel a little hopeful right now. 

Normally in church, I space out a bit during the homily, like any good Catholic.  However, on Easter Sunday, I tuned in to hear what the priest had to say.  Surprisingly, I agreed with his main message – that of resurrection, the concept of living forever, and how we shouldn’t wait until the afterlife to live as if each day is a brand new day.  How we could imagine a daily resurrection as a reason to start thinking about others, to go beyond our own life concerns and reach out to those who have less than we do.  And how each day is a new chance to start living the life we want to live.  

His homily got me thinking about the conflicting views of how to achieve that “eternal life” that seems to be the main focus of many.  Every religion says a different thing, and few people can actually agree on the subject.   As I was pondering, Varanasi kept popping into my head.  Varanasi, India, the city that is more than a city – it’s a veritable religious holy ground, where even the air reeks of resurrection and rebirth. 


We landed in Varanasi in early April 2009, and our arrival was like a slap in the face.  We had just spent 10 days in peaceful Bhutan, then another 7 in the chaotically tranquil Nepal, only to be thrust back into the whirlwind that is India is one short plane ride.  We stepped off the plane into sweltering heat and negotiated a taxi into Varanasi and settled back to readjust to the bustle.

On the short taxi ride into town, we drove past a house playing techno Hindi dance music at full blast for no apparent reason, a kid on a bicycle who was carrying what appeared to be the entire front end of a truck and then were stuck in traffic as an entire herd of huge, stinking water buffalo crossed through a major intersection in the center of the city. 

Water buffalo lounging in the Ganges after making their way through the city on the left. A Dhobi Ghat, where laundry is taken care of on the  right.

Once we made it to into the section of Varanasi near the river and its ghats (a set of steps that mark various entryways into sacred rivers in India), finding a hostel was no less chaotic.  It was stifling hot, there was an overly persistent tout following us constantly as we lugged our heavy backpacks from guesthouse to guesthouse.  The difficult to navigate streets were so narrow that only two people could fit across.  Some streets went sharply uphill, other straight down, and the steps in that heat were punishing.  We had to weave through people, monkeys, cow dung and actual cows.  Several times we had to squeeze past a cow who was taking up 3/4 of the narrow street.  As we approached, the cow would look at us, defiant and bored as if saying “what?  I was here first and you better not touch me when you go by.”

Cows wandering through the narrow streets on the left. The main burning ghat, Manikarnika Ghat on the right.

Until our trip, I usually limited my contact with cows to pouring my milk into my morning cereal, so each time we encountered one, I inched past the cow, terrified by the proximity.  I slipped by muttering the mantra “eeeee, don’t kick me, don’t kick me, don’t move! good cow! Eeeee, don’t kick me!” 

Since we had arrived to Varanasi late in the afternoon, we had to visit at least 10 hostels of varying sanitary conditions along the length of the river before finding one that had an empty room.  We finally found a place near the main burning ghat, Manikarnika.  At this point, tired and hungry, I was barely speaking in full sentences to Sergio. We were both soaked with sweat. We literally fell into the room and onto the bed, looked at one another and said, “Welcome back!”

Nitya Puja, the morning bath by the Dasaswamedh Ghat.

To me, Varanasi was what religion and rebirth look like in city form.  The air just feels different there.  Walking along the ghats and the river, bodies wrapped in beautiful fabrics were carried past us by several men.  There was always a funeral pyre smoldering at a burning ghat close by, cremating someone’s loved one. Elderly people sat in the streets, having made their pilgrimage to Varanasi to spend the last of their days.  Wood was stacked as high as buildings in the streets and smoke filled the air.  

Varanasi is where people go to die, but it’s also the most sacred place along the Ganges River - the river of life.  The entire city shows just how Hindus view life: temporary, fleeting, and a small stop on the re-incarnation train.

The Ganges River is not the fetid, practically radioactive snake of a river that I expected, at least not to the naked eye.  However, it is estimated that 200 million liters of untreated human sewage are released into the river every day.  The river contains 120 times the amount of fecal coli forms per 100ml than is considered safe before it hits Varanasi, so once it passes through the city, well, it’s really, seriously dirty.  But, from our hotel room, the river looked like any other river, and the people bathing and washing their clothes on its banks made it seem like a pure water source.

We spent a sweltering day in Varanasi, walking along the banks of the river.  Each ghat we passed was unique and the smoldering heat combined with the hot sun lent a hazy, dreamlike quality to all we were seeing.  Indian pilgrims in big groups constantly streamed past us, heading to the temple of their choice.  

In our afternoon boat ride on our first day, we couldn’t help but ask our boatman if the water was really safe to drink. 
“So, with all respect, is this water safe to drink?”  Sergio tentatively asked our boatman. 

“Absolutely, no problem, holy water.”  Came the confident answer.  He said it with a little smirk on his face, obviously thinking, these silly Westerners

“But… haven’t you heard that the water is polluted?”  Sergio and I were nauseous just thinking of drinking the water with dead bodies, saturated in fecal matter, chemicals, and who knows what else. 

“Sure, no problem, holy water.” He repeated. “People bring jugs.  Fill them while they are here.  Keep in houses.  Cure all problems.  Water last for years.  Water to purify” 

“Really.”  We replied, still not convinced. 

“Really, no problem, holy water, Mother Ganga, heals all.”  And with that he stopped rowing, dipped his hand in the water and took a long, deep, drink. 

That evening, after the sunset, we watched a beautiful worship ceremony from our boat that took place on the banks of the river.  Hundreds of boats gathered around to watch the worship, complete with fire, lights, and fireworks.  We ended the evening by lighting candles and sending them floating down the river on a banana leaf in memory of deceased loved ones.  Our candles slowly began to mingle with the thousands of candles set free by others on the river, and as the flickering lights drifted off into the darkness, I was overcome by how insignificant we all are, but at the same time, how much we need to rely on each other to get through this life. 

We took a final boat ride in the early hours of the morning that we left.  We passed hundreds of people lining the bank of the river, bathing, washing clothes, drinking in the holy water of the Ganges River.  They created a mosaic of colors so bright and vibrant.  We then passed a funeral taking place: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  We rowed by two men who had somehow rigged their boat to include a functioning television, watching TV on high volume, as they floated down the river.

We passed by lively kids being washed in the river by their mothers, squirming to get away and laughing.  We then rode by the bloated face down body of a child, one of the exceptions to the cremation rule.  Certain people, such as untouchables, children and pregnant women aren’t cremated; they are set free down the Ganges River.  If they are lucky, they are eaten on the other side or further down the river by dogs, their bones washing up on the banks.  Being eaten brings good karma for the next life and is considered to be a very auspicious thing to happen to someone. 

In the pinkish and yellowish light from the rising sun, we passed life and death, existing side by side, in a somewhat surreal mesh of colors, sounds, and the fragility of it all.  

It seems like a morbid topic for a post that started so positively – but the thing is, Varanasi wasn’t all that morbid.  If anything, it showed how we should take part in the happy celebration for as long as we’re here.  We’re all inter-connected in a technicolor blur of days, nights and coli form bacteria.

I don’t presume to know the way to eternal life.  Whether it’s through confessing my sins to a priest, being eaten by dogs, or living each day as if it were my last, I’m uncertain.  The only thing I'm sure of is the way to live life now - following the golden rule of do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Help when I can, give what I've got. 

Rebirth, resurrection, reincarnation, everlasting life, burial, cremation, dog food.  Who knows?  I can discern only one sure thing about these topics:

Today is a new day: another chance for a mini resurrection of my own.

April 19, 2011

Toilet Tribute

While talking with people after returning home from our travels, most found a way to politely ask about the state of our bowels during our time in India.  Among the more round about questions included “how was your health?”  and “did you have any problems…you know…with your stomach?”.  The most direct question came from a Portuguese cousin upon our return that roughly translates to, “so, how many times did you get the runs?”

These questions always bring up memories we had tried to push out of our minds.  Panic rises in our stomachs as we fearfully look around for the nearest restroom, sighing in relief as we realize we’re no longer actually in India, and a toilet is just down the hall. 

Of course we had stomach problems - show me someone who visited and left India without some sort of stomach emergency, and I’ll show you someone who did not experience India properly.   So, we quickly learned that since you’re going to have a dodgy stomach – you have no choice, it’s India!- do so within a couple kilometers of a five star hotel.  Try to find the hotels that cater to the really rich; those who are oblivious to the irony of going to India to stay somewhere that makes them feel like they never left home.  These places are an oasis of comfort and luxury as children stand begging two blocks away, covered in dirt. 

Enter the lobby, walk past the guests who visit the major sights in air conditioned vehicles, who take tours of the beautiful parts of the city, then return back to the hotel and take the elevator to their rooms that cost the same amount that it would take to feed about 100 of those hungry children for a month.  Take advantage of the presence of these types of tourists and vacationers.  Learn to see these hotels as the god-send that they are when that bad curry calls for an emergency evacuation. 

I broke the cardinal rule of traveling one morning in Mumbai – I drank the water in the form of ice in a questionable drink.  Bad decision and bad luck, but thankfully, I had the good fortune to feel the effects right in front of the gorgeous Taj Hotel, whose lobby contains the most luxurious semi-public (for those who can get into the hotel) restroom ever. 

It was glorious – the culmination of all that is good and right in the world.  A smiling woman in a delicate silver sari greeted me happily as I pushed past her to get to the toilet.  I walked into the stall that was larger than the room at the hostel where we staying, and even in my agony had to take a second to look around.   The bathroom had a padded seat, an automatic air freshener which filled the room with a burst of scent every 30 seconds.  Four different rolls of toilet paper beckoned from varying heights, conveniently making it comfortable to reach for toilet paper no matter how doubled over I was, clutching my aching stomach.  The public restroom there was 10 times nicer than anything the majority of the Indian population will ever set foot in.  It made me want to eat that street vendor food just to get to spend more time in there.  Naan with questionable meat, days old tomatoes and onions washed in tap water on the side?  Yes, please!  

The nicest bathroom I've seen was located in a luxury hotel bordered by slums in Mumbai.  

The hard part of course, was leaving, once my stomach had emptied its contents, knowing how awesome the rest of the hotel must have been, but I took what I could get.  Lessons learned: 
  1. Luxury hotels are the best medicine for a bad stomach in India
  2. The price of a good toilet is impossible to quantify.  
Toilets were something I had taken for granted.  When nature called, I went to the bathroom; I came back out, problem solved.  Traveling through Southeast Asia, I became more aware of toilets than I have ever been in my entire life.  There was always the problem of finding one, figuring out the logistics of using one, not contracting a strange disease from one, not getting propositioned by a 14 year old boy whilst offering up my bottom as an all you can eat buffet for mosquitoes in one (a story for another day), and always needing my Western toilet paper. 

I now realize just how important toilets are in our everyday lives, and the role they could play in improving quality of life. 

In the Philippines, in Mactang (my mom’s village),

View of Mactang
the majority of households are so poor that they do not have a bathroom.  I don’t mean a lack of indoor plumbing, or getting rid of the “washing with water” cleaning method (this isn’t about forcing our toilet paper habit on the rest of the world), but simply a lack of a section of the house set aside as a bathroom.  With a few hundred dollars, we can install a working bathroom in each household in the village.  A seemingly simple, basic thing.  But the positive effects of this simple thing are great.  

Above all, the installation of bathrooms creates sanitary conditions for everyone.  They eliminate certain diseases, the threat of ground water contamination, and other chances for infection that comes from contact with human waste.  The respect for the cleanliness of the land and village increases.  And when flooding occurs, flood water contamination can be crossed off of the long list of things to worry about.   We can hire locals to install the bathrooms which creates jobs, hence reducing the increasing rural exodus of young people and men from the island.   

So, on the rough, long list of goals for our non-profit, among the top rests the entry: 
 - Install a bathroom in every hut. 

In parallel to the famous saying:  

“give a man a fish, you feed him for a day but teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”  

The motto for this particular goal will be: 

“give a man a toilet…and he doesn’t have to go outside anymore” 

And that, my friends, will be a giant step in the right direction.  

April 13, 2011

Monkey Temple Enlightenment

Have you read this book?

If not, go to the local library and check it out.  Even better, go to the bookstore and buy it, since proceeds support the organization that the author started – Next Generation Nepal.  I'm all about the library, but in this case, it's worth a purchase.  Little Princes made me want to laugh, cry, run to Nepal to save children, and throw my hands up in the air in triumph, sometimes within the same page.  

I’m a deep believer in fate.  Signs are all around if we just stop to look for them.  We’re in the hands of the universe, and things happen for a reason.  I know some skeptics are rolling their eyes right now, and maybe it’s all a random coincidence, but so often I get this feeling that things come into my life just when they’re needed.  Sometimes it’s finding a new friend when I’m feeling especially lonely, or a big break when I’m about to give up, but usually it’s the little things - as simple as coming across a good book.  

This non-profit idea had been stewing in my brain for months, details floating in and out, and I was in the midst of major research.  About a month ago, I had almost given up on the idea entirely.  After reading through pages and pages of advice on how to file for tax-exempt status with the IRS, the complications of the paperwork, the need for a lawyer, the difficulties of fundraising, I felt like throwing in the towel.  How could I, little old me, ever found a non-profit organization?  Then I began to feel like my work would be meaningless.  How could our little organization help the millions of people in this world who are in destitute conditions?  

At my nadir, I happened to come across Little Princes, fell in love with it, was inspired, and all my negativity turned back into hope. Above all, this is a story about how a couple of people giving a little can make such a difference.  And it made me realize that our group doesn’t have to barge over to the Philippines, and make everyone’s lives better with a million dollar budget.  We have to focus on one tiny goal at a time.  

This book touched me in so many different ways.  The story itself is impossible to resist - that of a young American guy who sets off on a world adventure, only to find himself drawn back to an orphanage in Nepal where he began his adventure.  It details how he establishes a non-profit to reunite trafficked children with their families, and how well he succeeds.  It’s a love story.  The universal themes are written so that anyone can feel them through the pages.  But, I believe it also touched me because I could see so many similarities between the children described and "our" kids in the Philippines.  Poor, but incredibly resilient and happy all the same.  

One small paragraph in the book when he takes out a camera to take pictures of some kids really made me smile, since I have had the exact experience in the Philippines.  Try to sneak out a camera in an effort to catch a candid shot of those beautiful kids just being kids, completely unaware and absorbed in their own world and you will invariably get this: 

I also think this book touched me because I’ve been to Nepal and seen what happens to a country when its government completely abandons it.  What happens to a country when the well-being of the people is shamelessly and openly replaced with corruption and greed.  Nepal is a case study in “what could have been”.  The landscape is beautiful and mountainous, but what should be pristine streams have turned into a brown sludge, filled with garbage and waste, winding its way through cities and country, leaving disease in its path.  The basic infrastructures like running water, electricity, security are all lacking in daily life.  The saddest part is that the country has the resources to provide these things to its citizens, but the government is too busy making money for itself to give anything else to the people.  

Line of women waiting hours to get a little water for their houses.
Water is so scarce, whatever is around is used for everything. 
Chobhar - Trash and waste line what's left of the water that isn't being diverted for electricity to be sold to other countries.

Urban planning was obviously thrown to the wayside.  Our Lonely Planet from 2006 outlined treks through remote areas of the Kathmandu Valley, but when we tried to take those nature hikes in 2009, we could never find the nature part of the hike.  Urban sprawl had completely taken over the countryside in the form of poorly constructed houses and factories.  This used to be remote:

 Kirtipur - Southwest Kathmandu Valley

All that aside, our experiences in Nepal were good.  The people were friendly, and willing to give, courageously stoic in the face of their deteriorating country.  One particular day in our travels through Kathmandu contributed greatly to my present attitude:  

On our second day in the Kathmandu Valley, we decided to make the trek up to a highly sacred temple for both Buddhists and Hindus, Swayambhunath, which is a couple of kilometers from the center of Kathmandu.  The temple is more fondly referred to as the Monkey Temple, as the temple grounds double as a playground for (according to legend) sacred monkeys.  The monkeys certainly acted as if they were holy, as they slid down the banisters, jumped from tree to tree around the complex, and came close enough to us to reach out and touch, only to give us a strangely human raise of the eyebrows as they jumped back into the trees and temples.  

Swayambhunath was situated on a steep hill, and the only way to get up to it was to climb a large, daunting set of stairs that seemed to have no end, from our position at the bottom.  After I finished squealing to myself about how cute the monkeys were, I got to the more serious task of climbing up all those steps.  In the polluted morning air, we slowly climbed the staircase, pausing every so often to take a look around, to observe some playing monkeys or to take a picture.  About halfway up to the temple, a group of three girls started trailing us, leaning in close enough to give us shy smiles, and then backing away giggling for a couple of seconds, and coming up close again.  By the time we reached the top of the hill, the girls had joined our group, the shy smiles becoming big grins as they were encouraged by our own friendly looks.

The girls eagerly became our unofficial tour guides.  Each girl took hold of my hand or arm and we walked around the temple complex like some 8 legged awkward creature.  They pointed out various interesting parts of the temple and Sergio followed behind, snapping away with his camera, catching every moment possible.  I was charmed by them.  We could only communicate with the little bit of English that they knew and an elaborate system of hand gestures, but we spent a deeply pleasant hour walking around the temple soaking up the holiness.  From what we could gather, they were between the ages of 7-10, and had the day off from school because of either a religious holiday or a strike, both equally likely.  

The main stupa of the Monkey Temple is breathtaking, The most striking things about it are the sets of eyes painted on all four sides, pointing in each cardinal direction.  Supposedly the eyes of Buddha, they gave the stupa a strange feeling of being alive, as if they were able to see everyone and everything.  Two pairs of eyes were for communication with the gods.  The other two sets of eyes were said to represent wisdom and compassion, feelings that would come in handy for me later in the day.    

Main stupa at Swayambhunath.

After a couple of hours at the Monkey Temple, we began our walk back down to Kathmandu, and our new friends stuck with us.  Both Sergio and I were in really great moods: calm, spiritual, and charmed by the innocence of the girls, tagging along for a day.  My first instinct had been to be cautious, I was sure the girls were going to ask for something, or reveal some scam they were running for an adult, but they had patiently hung out with us for hours without asking for anything, seemingly happy to just be with us.  

It began once we got back out into the street away from the temple complex.  A quiet voice at first from the most outgoing of the girls – “We so thirsty.”  Cough cough, “drink.”  Encouraged by the first girl, the other joined in “thirsty. Hot day. Drink.”  It was an innocent enough statement, and we bought them a bottle of water and then kept walking.  Soon we heard more requests, “food.  Hungry.”  All of a sudden, my calm mood was burst.  Of course, once again, we were being asked for more than what we “could” give at the time.  Suddenly I was sure these innocent girls were about to ask us for something else, or lead us to some scam set up for tourists.  

I realize now that my annoyance was probably a reaction stemming from guilt at not being able to help them more.  A sort of defense mechanism to deal with feeling the responsibility.  But at the time, I couldn’t see things so clearly, and I was mad at them.  Being asked day in and day out, all day for things, feeling like people always were out to take advantage of us, expecting more from us, became unbearable at times.    I felt everyone’s expectations weighing on us, and some days, I just wanted to shout, “We are just two budget backpackers!!  Go ask someone else!!”  How quickly I became cynical, bitter even.  

I settled into my bad mood.  The sun was beating down on us, the midday traffic of the Kathmandu streets was kicking up dust and pollution, limiting my lung capacity, and once again we had been “tricked” into feeling that there was no ulterior motive - just three young girls curious about us.  

Then, suddenly, Buddha’s eyes from earlier popped back into my head; particularly those that convey wisdom and compassion. I had a big change of heart and snapped out of the crazy mood I was in.  I realized that if, for example, my parents took me out to dinner, I would want them to pay for me.  If I got invited out for a day trip with a wealthy couple that I knew had tons of money, they would buy my ticket.  What was I thinking, getting mad at these girls? 

I believe it was the eyes of compassion that made me stop and analyze my reaction.  But in any case, we stopped to buy them some more water and cookies and had a snack in the street.  I was even more ashamed when the girls offered us some of the cookies we had given them, and tried to give the unfinished pack to us.  We insisted they keep them, said our good-byes and kept on walking.  The girls looked wistfully after us, as they wanted to stay with us, but stated they “weren’t allowed” to cross the bridge back into Kathmandu.  

Maybe all those people who were constantly asking us for things didn’t see Western travelers as “walking ATM’s” as I heard some jaded travelers complain about while describing their experiences.  Maybe they’re not all natives out to dupe tourists for everything they can get.  Maybe they’re just people who see others that have been dealt a much better hand than they have, and hope for an opportunity.  A chance at something that they don’t have the resources to achieve on their own; a chance, for a day, or an hour, a minute, or simply while finishing off that bottle of water, to be something and somewhere different. 

It’s easy to become cynical when people are constantly asking for something, or when we live a life of comfort, but sometimes, all it takes is a little perspective to see things as they are.  When I see a chance in my life, I grab it, and perhaps that’s simply what all the people we encountered were doing - reaching for an opportunity that happened to be in the form of two happy backpackers.   

With this non-profit, we hope to be instrumental in creating that opportunity that people can reach for.  In some cases it will be a gesture as small as providing a bottle of water and a couple of packages of cookies, but we hope that in the future, this will grow to create opportunities through long-lasting changes that can provide much, MUCH more than that. 

April 5, 2011

Old Blog, New Direction...

Hmm, April 2009 is the last post before this one.  I accept it - we’re not going to win any awards for most frequent bloggers.  In our defense, we entered Myanmar soon after our last blog post, where it was impossible to do even basic things on the Internet, let alone update a blog.  Then we moved on to the Philippines, where blogging was supplanted by wrestling with monkey-like kids, swimming all day, and getting married.  Then, we spent the last of our money floating down the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo, drinking freshly picked tea in the Cameron Highlands, and cycling through the ruins of Angkor Wat – again places where the Internet was a fuzzy thought in the back of our minds.  Excuses, I know, but good ones!

Since then, we returned to Portugal for a stint, and moved on to the United States, specifically Chicago.  We’ve battled our way through unemployment, temp jobs that make us question our sanity for leaving the simple life behind, (gratefully) living with both sets of parents, and readjusting to life without backpacks.  Barely a day goes by when we don’t bring up something from our trip – a memory triggered by one of our senses.  Usually, (and this may show where our priorities lie), it’s while we’re eating, and one of us will turn to the other and say “remember those shrimp we had in….” or “this reminds me of that butter tea we choked down in…”.  Memories of this trip are sometimes what get me through an otherwise monotonous day of life in Chicago.  Somehow, two years have passed since we first left for this adventure – which just doesn’t seem possible.  

Now, approaching April 2011, we’re both gainfully employed – no longer intrepid budget backpackers, but random, functioning members of society.  We just filed taxes.  We’re going to IKEA this weekend.   We may be saving up for a bread maker.  We’ve observed a growing trend as of late – when we say the words “we have good news” people immediately respond with “you’re pregnant!?”.  (for the record, I'm not!)  We just renewed our lease for another year, setting the stage for what will be the longest we’ve lived together in one place.  

We’re in a more comfortable position than we were 2 years ago– perhaps even settled.  The 21 one year old version of me cringes in horror at that word.  Actually, the 25 year old traveler version of me cringes at that word.  My biggest fear as we were boarding the plane out of Kuala Lumpur to take us back to reality that day in June 2009 was that this would be IT.  That, we would, against our best intentions, get sucked back into real life and never be able to jump back out.  

Both of us have landed great, full time jobs – our traveling plans lately have turned into a weekend in May, not so much 6 months of wandering.  We still have our goal of taking an “as long as possible” trek right before we start having kids and it’s not as if we won’t travel in the future.  But I depressingly realize that the chances for this type of travel -  for us to quit our jobs, leave our apartment, forget about things like insurance and taxes, and set off around the world with only each other, our backpacks and a Lonely Planet to guide us, are numbered.  

However, there are advantages to being settled.  I’m able to look back on our trip from a different perspective; realizing that once again everything I was certain I knew – I didn’t know.  I’m able to remember the good and bad times, and come to conclusions and life lessons that I couldn’t see in the moment.  

As a result of our trip, we appreciate every single day that we have.  There’s something about seeing people desperately begging for a piece of bread that makes us grateful for every morsel of food that we put into our mouths.  We now have one goal in our collective lives – to be happy.  As simplistic and whimsical as it may sound, we truly value being happy above all else.  Because of the trip, no one will see us chasing money, cars, or fame.  We’re happy with every penny we have, happy to be together, content to have a roof over our heads, a full belly, and a night out now and then.  With a simplicity that didn’t show itself before our trip, we know what’s important in our lives.  We also have reached an acute awareness of how truly lucky we are.  How lucky it is that all our basic needs are taken care of, and how fortunate that we have the luxury of the goal of happiness.  

On the flip side, I’m also able to realize that we were just a teensy bit arrogant in our newbie backpacker naivety.  That we prided ourselves a little too much on being able to bargain with the locals over the price of a rickshaw ride or a souvenir.  That we unjustly patted ourselves on the back anytime we saved a dollar or two, and that we quickly lost perspective on how expensive was “too expensive”.  

Certain moments in our trip haunt me to this day, especially when I’m standing in line at Argo Tea, waiting to pay for my $4 chai latte.  They come back to me in a flash while I’m standing at my kitchen sink doing the dishes and letting my mind wander.  They sneak into my head when I’m finishing up our budget for the month, looking at the thousands of dollars we spent in four weeks on…what exactly?   Moments such as:
When we were in Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, we came to a small temple, one that was hidden away from the main roads, and tucked into a corner of the landscape.  We were the only ones there.  It was 6pm, we were among the last of the tourists that would visit for the day, when we were approached by two small girls selling bracelets.  They offered us a bracelet  -$1.  Having already given away some money that day, we smiled politely (patronizingly?) and shook our heads.  Then they offered us 10 bracelets for $1.  No, we politely declined as we walked down the hill towards our bikes.  We had already spent $5 over our budget for the day.  They gathered closer, pressing in a bit tighter, raising their voices and talking over each other.  “Please ma’am, 20 bracelets. One dollar!”  The desperation in their voices left me feeling extremely uncomfortable as I tried to ignore it.  “50 bracelets!  $1!!”  No.  Walking faster. “100 bracelets, $1!”  “One dollar sir, 100 bracelets!! Special Friend Price, Just for you!”  We reached our bikes and rode off.  
I would give anything to be able to go back and give them $10.  Or $20, the amount we just spent on greasy fast food hamburgers for lunch.  Or $100.  Or to pick both of them up, put them in my backpack and carry them home to get an education, constant food and shelter, and a new life.  A life away from begging and selling things for money that probably went straight to an adult in their lives anyway.  

Even closer to my heart, the trip cemented my already lingering feeling of needing to help my family in the Philippines.  What’s the difference between my numerous cousins, aunts, uncles, and other relatives and me?  What’s the reason for the large discrepancy in the quality of life between us?  Luck.  Simple dumb luck that I was born to this set of parents and not another.  If I hear the call to help loud and clear when I think of other countries visited, it is deafening in my ears when I focus on the Philippines.  My more immediate family is lucky enough to benefit from the selfless generosity of my parents.  This generosity is a large part of my inspiration now because it has shown me how effective a little extra kindness can be.  However, what about everyone else on the island?  Everyone else in the region, everyone else in the country?  I might be American, but my heart lies in the Philippines, and I’m afflicted with an inescapable tendency to follow my heart above all else.  

When I really start to think about it, or when I daydream about our next trip, questions pop up at me.  Things like: How to reconcile being a budget backpacker with being a rich Westerner?  To us, we were living on $40 a day damnit, we were poor!  To them, we’re white (ish) people who have a life full of privilege.  We can travel halfway around the world and pretend to know what it’s like to “rough” it.  We have the luxury of taking time off to Find Ourselves, while others just want to put one foot in front of the other.  What’s the level of personal responsibility?  Just because we have enough money to travel on a budget for six months, does that mean we should have to give money to everyone we see?  And if we don’t, at what point are we being selfish?  

Backpacking is different from a vacation in, say, Rome.  In Rome, while poverty also lurks everywhere, a person can have a guilt free couple of weeks without thinking too much about the subject.  On these vacations, poverty isn’t a constant confrontation on every corner, and it’s possible to spend freely thinking, “I earned this money, I deserve a break” Simple and clear-cut.  If we had decided to backpack through Europe, I wouldn’t even be having this inner dialogue, but we didn’t.  We chose Southeast Asia, where we became aware that every dollar we spent was a luxury, and just how much a dollar was worth.  A dollar could be the difference between a family going hungry for a night or not.  The difference between “need” and “this would be nice to have” became crystal clear.  

Naturally, this created an awareness - an awareness that now I can’t shake off.  It’s seeing something that you can’t ‘unsee’.  Can I continue to do nothing at all, when I’ve stared poverty in the face?  If I really think about it, this question can apply to my life now.  I spend hundreds of dollars a month on things that I don’t need.  If I can spend $75 on a single night out with friends, can’t I give even more?  Where’s the limit, what’s the line, to what extent are we obligated to give - in our own country and abroad?

I try to give freely now, mostly of my time, but of money too, when I can.  To somehow atone for the frugality and selfishness that were necessary in order for us to achieve our goal of backpacking.  Unfortunately, at that egocentric time in our lives, in order to achieve our dreams we had to step on countless others.  One day, as I was running along Lake Michigan, pondering the state of the world, I realized I can now have a new dream.  One that, in order to achieve it, I will have to help (hopefully) countless others.  Which is where “I Can See the World Through You” comes in.  More than the name of the song that Sergio and I first danced to at our wedding, more than the title of our blog, I think I’ve just found the title of a group I want to start.  And on this blog, where it all began is where the next step can begin as well. 

What started as a self-indulgent wish to see the whole world might just have become a selfless need to serve a tiny part of the world.  

We are going to start a non-profit.  One whose early focus now is the people of the Philippines, specifically those in my mom’s home village, but if it works (and I have faith that it will) it can spread to many other places.    

I believe it was the great Mother Theresa who said “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.”  This blog, this project, this goal is my small thing in which I’m putting all my faith.  And hopefully, with a little luck and a lot of help from others, it will become resonant with strength.