Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Last Day in Koh Samui

Sadly, our time in Koh Samui has come to an end. Our time here has been sweet beyond words and will always be fondly remembered, and, hopefully, we will be able to return someday. In these past two weeks, the sun, surf, and serenity of our surroundings have facilitated a refreshing of our souls, beyond what we even knew we needed. With this renewal of spirit has come a renewal of mind, and both Jeff and I have been able to explore the depths of projects that we are very much excited about working on, as well as have meaningful conversations about the future, which now seems less daunting and more approachable than it did before. So, even though I'm sad to leave Koh Samui, I feel being here has given me the benefit of having new eyes, and I'm so grateful for this time. Now, on to Malaysia!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Island Life

I haven't written lately, because, honestly, there hasn't been much particularly newsworthy going on. The island life is pretty low-key and very relaxed (though not entirely idle, as you will see). I've been told by some concerned readers that they become anxious about our safety and well-being if I don't check in from time to time, so here I am, with a peek at what island life looks like for us.

  • On weekdays, the older two kids and the grown-ups hop up around 6:00 am (at the kids' request) to workout. We alternate between strength training on the porch and walking/running on the beach. I am ridiculously sore, but I'm so happy that we are being intentional about implementing some of our family's health and fitness goals.
  • Breakfast is eaten on the porch, overlooking the beach, and usually involves some sort of delicious fresh fruit. The younger boys love to walk down to the fruit stand and pick out a wide variety of fruits they know and love, as well as a few new-to-us fruits to try. They are also dying to pick the pineapple growing along the path to the pool (though, of course, I won't let them), and I believe Max is secretly scheming to climb a coconut tree to pluck one of the tasty green coconuts. This morning Clay made breakfast for everyone by himself (slices of bread on plates, with "toppings"--butter and jelly-- at the ready) and was so proud to present his "buffet" to us when came into the kitchen.
  • Jeff has been working on a new business idea and has been making excellent progress.
  • I have been putting together some ideas for a writing project, which I'm really excited about. I have also been watching my journal sales soar this month, which has been loads of fun. (If you happen to have been one of the purchasers of the journal, thank you. I would appreciate it so much if you could leave me a review on Amazon.)
  • There are usually a couple of trips to the pool everyday, and Clay is really getting the hang of swimming on his own. He also begs for Jeff to do "throw-ups" with him (throwing him into the air, letting him splash under the water, and then scooping him up as he swims to the surface). "Dad, can we do two more swims and then two more throw-ups before we go?!"
  • We have met an older Thai man, who might truly be the most interesting man in the world, if half of what he says is true. We have visited with him a couple of times and have been somewhat amazed by his stories, which do not seem entirely believable or unbelievable. He is a sweet, lonely man and very generous, and, even if his stories turned out not to be true, we would be glad to say we met him.
  • In the evenings, we usually walk along the beach, as a breathtaking sunset takes over the sky, and pick a new restaurant to try or revisit one we have already enjoyed. We sip fruity little drinks, eat a variety of delicious so-spicy and not-so-spicy Thai foods, and enjoy the company of our favorite people and the hospitality of the lovely Thai people. 
  • There are all sorts of interesting creatures around, and lessons in natural science abound. We have many small geckos around, inside and outside the house, that scurry along the walls snacking on insects and calling to one another with loud croaks that make me think of dinosaurs for some reason. And last night, a very large tokay gecko paid us a visit, and we were simultaneously fascinated and terrified, watching him working his powerful jaws, as he tried to snatch enormous flying beetles out of the air. I also found an unnecessarily and inappropriately large spider in the bathroom. Somewhere in my reasonably intelligent brain, I knew he was there to keep the bug population from taking over, but as I tried to exit the bathroom with him on the door, I felt as if he presented a mortal danger to me instead. I did not mean to squeal, but I could not help it, and since, at that moment, I felt like it was either him or me, I got my brave hubby to come take care of the situation. The spider's body ended up in the trashcan beside the sink, and within an hour, an army of abnormally large ants had moved in and started dismantling the body, which they dutifully carried off piece by piece. It was disturbingly mesmerizing to watch. Afraid the entire house would be overrun by the ants and that they might be looking for more flesh to munch, we moved the whole can outside, and when we got up this morning, there was nothing left of the spider and no ant was in sight. It was a spectacular display of nature at work!
  • Additionally, we have been reading lots of books, playing a few games, watching some movies, sneaking in the occasional nap, and soaking up our beautiful life in this beautiful place. 
Weston had a difficult time figuring out the crab cracker,
but our waitress (who may have also been the owner of the restaurant)
came over and took over the job for him, which he thought was great.
The following night, we saw a man out in the water catching crabs
just like these. That's about as fresh as seafood can get!

The little pineapple that greets us on our way to the pool

Fried rice in a pineapple boat

Jeff and Weston found this fun place at the end of the beach.
Most of the tables were inside little cabanas, but we chose the one sitting over the water.
There were hammocks and humongous swings interspersed with the tables,
and the owner was very proud that he could offer us paper umbrellas on our drinks.

Amazing Koh Samui Sunsets

The fascinating and slightly terrifying tokay gecko

Mr. Big, making breakfast

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Where in the World are the Watts? Part 4

Not all of our time here on Koh Samui has been idle. In fact, Jeff and I have both been working hard (from an office with a killer view!) to finalize the last bit of our RTW trip. All the when/where blanks are now filled in on the spreadsheet, and since my previously published itinerary runs out when we leave Koh Samui, I thought some of you might be interested to know what's on the horizon for us in the next few months.

This chart also includes our U.S. re-entry plan, which we have finally settled on, through much discussion and soul-searching. We don't believe our nomadic hearts we will ever be satisfied with a truly stationary lifestyle, but to accomplish some of the particular goals of our family in the next few years, we will need a home base in the U.S. We have chosen the Lewisville/Flower Mound area of Texas, because it offers many opportunities to help us meet our goals. You will no doubt be hearing more about the particulars in future posts, but for now, this should be enough information to help you understand the last line of the chart.

If you are new to the blog and are wondering about the other parts of our journey, you can click on the links below to see our other When/Where charts:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Mar. 31 - Apr. 2
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Apr. 2 – Apr. 3
Apr. 3 – Apr. 4
Overnight Flight to Melbourne
Apr. 4 – Apr. 9
Ballarat, Australia
Apr. 9 – Apr. 14
Melbourne, Australia
Apr. 14 – Apr. 17
Hamilton Island, Australia
Apr. 17 – Apr. 19
Farrants Hill, Australia
Apr. 19 – Apr. 22
Charlotte Bay, Australia
Apr. 22 – Apr. 27
Sydney, Australia
Apr. 27 – May 4
Christchurch, New Zealand
May 4 – May 8
Dunedin, New Zealand
May 8 – May 12
Wanaka, New Zealand
May 12 – May 15
Twizel, New Zealand
May 15 – May 17
Kaikoura, New Zealand
May 17 – May 23
Wellington, New Zealand
May 23 – May 26
New Plymouth, New Zealand
May 26 – May 27
Hamilton, New Zealand
May 27 – May 31
Whitianga, New Zealand
May 31 – May 31
(The dates are not a typo. We will cross the International Date Line.)
Overnight Flight to Kona, Hawaii
May 31 – June 11
Kona, Hawaii
June 11 – June 16
Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii
June 16 – June 21
Laie, Oahu, Hawaii
June 21 – June 29
Kauai, Hawaii
June 29 – July 1
Hana, Maui, Hawaii
July 1 – July 6
Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii
July 6 – July 7
Overnight flight to Dallas, TX
July 7 – July 15
Lewisville, TX

Saturday, March 19, 2016

I could get used to this

After our Trans-Mongolian train trip, I made a post in which I mentioned that our travel lifestyle is a far cry from being all glitz and glamor, and that is absolutely true. But here on Koh Samui, in our large beach house, I must admit, life feels pretty glamorous. The American dollar goes pretty far here, so we've been able to indulge in a bit more luxury than we are used to. First of all, we have been working our way through the beach restaurants, eating the most amazing Thai food, for almost nothing. Tonight, we decided mix things up a bit by having a Thai cook come to our home and prepare a fantastic meal for us here, for about $50 USD, which included the price of the groceries, the preparation of two appetizers and four main dishes (of which we had leftovers), and, most amazing of all, a thorough cleaning of the kitchen and washing of the dishes afterwards. Earlier in the day, a housekeeper came to the house, whose twice weekly services are included in the price of our house. And, we received our laundry back from the laundry facility down the road, all washed, dryed and folded for about $1/kg. All this in addition to living ten steps from a gorgeous, quiet beach in what can only be called "Paradise." It's definitely not my usual lifestyle, but I don't think it would take me long to get used to it! 

Many of the beach restaurants have bean bag chairs scattered around,
which the boys absolutely love hanging out in!

Pool Time
(Our house is in the background--20 steps to the pool and 10 steps to the beach,
according to Weston's undoubtedly accurate calculations.)

Sunset in Paradise

Chicken Satay and Tempura Vegetables, with dipping sauces

A fantastic meal, prepared in our home, and not by our hands
(From the back: Sweet and Sour pork, Massaman curry,
Shrimp Pad Thai, and Pineapple Fried Rice)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Visuals

Here are the pictures that go with yesterday's post:

Dim Sum in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Light Show

The Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery

Funarium Fun

Train Travel

Our first day on Koh Samui

If you need me in the next couple of weeks, I'll be here.

Whirlwind Travel Days

When I looked at the date of my last post, I couldn't believe it was only three days ago. So much has happened since then. And, a whole lot of ground has been covered. Literally. On Sunday, we flew from Xi'an to Hong Kong, where we made every effort to maximize our short overnight visit. We had our first experience with dim sum, which we thoroughly enjoyed. Afterwards, we took in the famous Hong Kong light show down at the harbor. The following day, after a quick breakfast at a chain-y coffee shop (because the kids rejected a local place after reading "Pig Blood Curd" on the menu), and after stashing our bags at the designated area in the airport, we made the long bus ride out to see the Big Buddha (Tian Tan Buddha), which sits on the property of the Po Lin Monastery. At 112 ft. tall, we felt he was appropriately named. Clay was absolutely thrilled to see such a large statue up close, and we all enjoyed the experience of being at the lovely monastery, up in the mountains. After climbing up the 268 steps to the base of the statue and giving it a good looking over, we headed back down for a vegetarian meal at the monastery. For most of our group, it was the first opportunity to try tofu, which was met with mixed reviews. Overall, the meal, which was served family-style, was good, and we all found things we enjoyed.

From there, we headed back to the airport to catch our flight to Bangkok. It was our first time flying Sri Lankan Air, but we are all hoping it won't be our last. It was so nice and had so many amenities, a couple of the kids thought we had mistakenly entered the first class compartment, rather than coach. We all had our own screens, each equipped with a wide variety of movies and games, so the flight passed quickly. (By the way, I chose to watch Bridge of Spies, with Tom Hanks, and I just want say that if you haven't seen it, you absolutely must. Admittedly, I don't watch a lot of movies, but I'm a sucker for movies inspired by true events. It is the best movie I have seen in some time, and it has left me with a great many things to think deeper on.) By the time we made it to our apartment, it was late, and we were all ready to call it a day. Unfortunately, around 11:30 pm, the landlord contacted us to let us know that we would have to vacate before 8:00 in the morning, because she had an exterminator coming, and she couldn't reschedule. She apologized profusely for the inconvenience and even refunded the money we paid for the night, so it wasn't all bad.

So, bright and early, we strapped on our packs and headed out to explore Bangkok's breakfast offerings. We found a hotel not terribly far away offering a buffet breakfast that seemed perfect for our hungry group. Our train wasn't scheduled to leave the city until 7:30 pm, so our goal after breakfast was to find a way to keep the kids entertained without spending the day lugging our packs around in the heat and humidity, which, though very welcome to us after months and months of coldness, was not ideal for tramping around with heavy packs on our backs. We took a cab over to the Funarium, which was the best decision we could have made. Inside the large air conditioned building, we found a huge jungle gym, a bike track, a trampoline, a climbing wall, a ball pit, a sport court, a cafe, clean (and fully equipped) restrooms, and a couple of masseuses. Everyone was perfectly happy, and we had a wonderful day.

Eventually, we headed to the train station. So we could catch an overnight train, so we could catch a bus, so we could catch a ferry, so we could catch a taxi. So we could get to my happy place on Koh Samui. I have already declared my intentions to stay here indefinitely. If it weren't for the fact that there is still much of the world to be seen, I probably would, too! This place is amazing! Our house sits right on the beach and is huge and gorgeous. The sea breeze blows through our windows, and fragrant, beautiful flowers bloom all around. I can feel almost tangible changes in my body and my attitude (not that either was noticeably ill before). We walked down the beach and had a delicious lunch at a place with a sand floor and no walls. The younger boys played on the beach and in the water, and they found a coconut, which they worked on cracking. Eventually, Ruth helped them get into it, and they were all disappointed and disgusted to find it rotten, stinky, and full of worms. We found another fun beach restaurant to eat at for dinner, and were treated to a small fireworks show as we made our way back to our house. So far, everything about Koh Samui is absolute perfection. I am looking forward to spending the next couple of weeks here.

*I'll try to add pictures tomorrow.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Xi'an Wall

Yesterday was our last day in Xi'an, and we spent it hanging out on the awesome and ancient Xi'an Wall, which was built during the Tang Dynasty (600s-900s) and expanded during the Ming Dynasty (1300s to 1600s). Jeff and the older kids rode bikes all the way around the wall, a distance of almost 9 miles. Clay was too small to ride the bikes, so he and I had a date in which we wandered through the impressive New Year's decorations and stopped for a drink. It was a beautiful day, and we all had so much fun!

The Xi'an Wall

My people, at the wall

Ready for a unique bike ride

One of the many watchtowers on the wall

Don't I have a handsome date?!

A million people stopped us to take pictures of or with Clay,
but this one was my favorite (and Clay's too!)

It's fun to go on a date with a statue lover when you are surrounded by "statues"

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Xi'an Pictures

High Speed Train

Fun at the apartment

Tang Paradise

Authentic Chinese buffet Restaurant

Terracotta Army Museum

Market Sights
(Cricket store along the bottom row)

Food Tour

*Words here.


On Sunday, we took the high-speed train from Beijing to Xi'an, which cruised along at a speed of about 300 km/hour (186 mi/hour). It was a five-hour ride, but we hardly noticed because the ride was so smooth and comfortable, especially from our first-class seats.

Since the forecast for Monday was "dust," with a big fuzzy cloud drawn on the weather map, and since we were tired from traveling and sightseeing in Beijing, we decided to just stick close to our apartment that day. The pollution problem here is real, and most days look like "dust" to me, even when the forecast doesn't mention it, so if they call it out, you know it's serious.

On Tuesday, we decided to visit Tang Paradise, which was essentially a large park, with a lake in the center. We had been expecting shows and parades and activities but had to settle for just a nice walk in the park and a look at the new year's decorations, which were still scattered throughout the grounds. It wasn't very forienger-friendly, so we may have just not understood what was going on, which was a problem that plagued us even before we arrived. We actually waited for quite a long time for a bus that never arrived and ended up just walking the three miles to the park. The best part about that, though, was that we got to have lunch at a truly authentic Chinese place, where the use of English wasn't an option. We ordered blindly by pointing to the table next to us, and we ended up with a delicious beef, noodle, dumpling, and green onion soup, which we ate with chopsticks. (Yes, we ate soup with chopsticks!) It was awesome! The owner was so happy to have us and was completely impressed with Weston's ability to count in Chinese. He then thought Weston ought to be able to act as a true translator for us, but eventually gave up chatting when he realized Weston couldn't get much beyond numbers. At the end of the day, we successfully caught the bus back to our apartment and decided to reward ourselves by going out to dinner. We went in the first restaurant we saw, which happened to be a real-deal (not Americanized) Chinese buffet. We had the option to fill our plates with cooked foods or raw foods that we could cook ourselves at our table. We got to try lots of interesting things, and we had a great time.

Yesterday was our day to go out and see the famous terra cotta army, just outside of Xi'an. We had much better luck with public transportation than we had the previous day and got where we needed to go in the amount of time we expected. It's the little victories! The museum was such a fascinating site, and we enjoyed seeing some of the 3000 warriors that have been excavated so far. Each one of them is unique, and the excavating process seems so interesting. We were very glad we made the effort to go and see it and definitely felt it was worth it. We got back to our apartment late in the afternoon and decided we just needed a break from Chinese food, so we took ourselves down to the Pizza Hut on the corner. We're all about adventure, but sometimes people just need something sort of familiar, that doesn't require chopsticks!

We were ready to jump fully back into the Chinese food scene this morning, which was great, because we had already booked a food tour with Lost Plate. Our guide met us at the subway station, and we crammed into two little tuk tuks and headed off to hit some VERY local joints and try some TRULY authentic local cuisine. Our first stop was at a tiny hole-in-the-wall, where the same family has been making the same "thousand layer pancakes" for over fifty years. There was one table in the middle of the room, just big enough for our group and two other people. The cooking station was literally just a couple of feet away. The pancakes were more like large dumplings and were filled with meat and onions and green vegetables, before being smashed between two griddles and cooked to perfection. They were fantastic--easily my favorite Chinese food, so far. Our next stop was at an even smaller place, where the line stretched down the block. There were no tables inside, but there were a few tiny tables with stools (think preschool classroom) scattered along the sidewalk and down an alleyway. There we had soup made with beef, potatoes, red carrots, cabbage, green onions, cornstarch, and plenty of anise. One version also had a spicy pepper sauce in it. After that we took some time to digest, as we walked through the market. Oh my! I'm not even sure I can describe it. It was wild! We saw everything you can imagine and probably lots of things you can't. All the usual foods were for sale, right alongside the home goods and underwear. We also saw several dentists, a chiropractor, and tables of sex toys thrown in for good measure. But, our favorite stop was a pet store specializing in one particular type of pet: crickets. I have never, ever been in a store like that before. There was one whole wall, filled with tiny cages, which contained the "singing" crickets. The special "fighting" crickets were kept on the counter in boxes. The owner tried to get a couple to fight for us but ultimately concluded that it was just too cold outside to get them riled up. I promise you, I am not making this stuff up! In addition to the critters themselves, there were also a great many accessories to make pet crickets comfortable, just like you would find in any pet store. When we had finished gawking in the market, we continued our food tour. (Because you know how looking at buckets of maggots and trailers full of raw livers will really cause you to work up an appetite!) Our next two stops were for true street food, in the market. We had stone bread, which is a sort of savory, flat cornbread, which is cooked under hot stones, that leaves it indented and pocked. Our guide told us this recipe is the oldest known Chinese recipe. Before we had time to finish those, we grabbed some persimmon cakes, which was the only sweet food we had on the tour, and which we were told is truly unique to Xi'an and dates back to the Ming Dynasty. They were very much like fried fruity doughnuts, but the method of frying them was pretty interesting. They scooped the dough into large metal ladle-looking spoons, which they then submerged in boiling oil for a couple of minutes. Our final stop led us to another teeny mom-and-pop place, where we were invited to participate in the noodle making with the proprietary family. While we made noodles, our guide went next door to order some dumplings, so that we ended up with sour soup dumplings and noodles with beef and greens. By that time, we were nice and stuffed, so we couldn't finish everything. When our tour was done, we received gift bags with chopsticks, spices, recipes, and postcards, and we got to keep our tea thermoses we received and used earlier in the day. It was such a fantastic experience! If you are ever visiting Xi'an and you're feeling adventurous, you must put this tour on your list of things to absolutely do.

I'm sorry for the long post and the massive brain dump (and the lack of pictures). Our internet here is atrocious, so I just had to throw it all out there in one giant session (though, truth be told, the internet has failed at least a dozen times while I've been trying to write this, and it has taken hours to get it posted). If you stuck with me through this, thanks. I know your time is valuable, and it means a lot to me that you are using some of it to be a part of our journey!

*Pictures here.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Temple of Heaven

They say Disney World is "the happiest place on Earth," but I have been there, and this is a lie. (No offense intended to my Disney loving friends!) Today, we visited the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, and I believe the slogan would be much more accurate if applied to this lovely place instead. I don't know when I have ever been in a place that exuded quite so much positivity. It was a place filled with music, dancing, games, and people of all kinds in pursuit of physical and emotional well-being. And, I have never seen a display of community to match the likes of it.

The Temple of Heaven was originally built in the 1400s, as a place of worship for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. And, while the beautiful temple structures are still in place, today, the extensive grounds, dotted with ancient trees, make up an incredible park, which is accessible to all for a small fee. We saw groups performing a variety of dances, playing unusual instruments, practicing Tai Chi and Bailong, flying kites, working on gymnastic moves, exercising, and playing cards, dominoes, Chinese chess, and Jianzi (Chinese hacky sack). Adults and children played side by side, and everyone wore a smile. We were invited to play and participate in any activity we showed an interest in. And, as a bonus, the weather was perfect! We enjoyed the day so much and would love to visit this inspirational place again in the future!

Dancing, music, Tai Chi, Bailong, and gymnastics
are just a few of the activities we saw int he park.

There were people gathered everywhere to play games,
and our kids were happy to get in on the action. 

There was a huge section of the park devoted to workout equipment.
We were happy to get physical and gave it all a try!

Some of the beautiful temple structures

The center of my universe standing at the spot known as
"The Center of the Universe"

Friday, March 04, 2016

Beijing Zoo

The entrance to the zoo 

We came for the pandas, of course!
Clay was a bit disappointed that we couldn't hug them, after seeing professional
panda huggers online the other day, but he was impressed that each panda
had its very own playground. 

Clay loves pandas!

Hiding in a panda tree

Clay also loves panda statues!

For some reason this statue inspired push-ups
(I think it was because the stones contained imprints of panda paws,
of which the back paws look more like human feet and the front paws
more like human hands, so Clay was just trying to match up.)

I thought the feathery white beard made this
great bustard look especially Chinese
(like the kung fu masters of movies)

Snub-nosed monkey

There were many wolf statues, but Clay liked the one with babies the best.

This polar bear was one big dude!


White Tiger

Clay was so excited to have a seat by this friendly koala

Elephant riders

Max was just the right size to be an Emperor Penguin