Goodbye Asia: Not with a Bang but a Whimper

After seven months in Asia, we made our exit from Sri Lanka abruptly and without ceremony. The universe always the existential comedian, it is not lost on me that we left on Passover; we too did not have time to wait for the bread to rise.  

It is 10pm Sri Lanka time, nearly 30 hours before we are set to depart for Italy. Our flight is scheduled for 3am (ugh), two days from now. Chris leisurely clicks on the check in button and is shocked to see that our departing flight is now at 10am – 12 hours from now. This must be an error, we think, our hearts already racing. We are four hours away from the Colombo airport where we must arrive three hours before our flight. We are not packed. 

We get on the phone with Emirates who tell us that our first flight had been rescheduled, turning our two hour layover in Dubai into an 18 HOUR LAYOVER. We have three choices: (1) find a later flight to Dubai, which would then connect with our existing second leg from Dubai to Pisa; (2) move both flights’ dates altogether; or (3) take a hotel/meal voucher in Dubai for the 18 hour layover.

I will not go into the details of the long conversations with Emirates’ agents that follow, but they cannot find any other flights with seats for five people within the next week. The only option is a travel voucher. The woman on the line mysteriously says to call back in an hour to receive confirmation of the voucher.

11pm. Work with our homestay owner to find a driver to get us to the airport at 4am. Homestay owner drives his scooter to the next town to pay a guy to confirm the taxi for us. Lose money for the original taxi already reserved for the next night. Pack with steady urgency. Call Emirates back. Our hotel voucher is denied. Plead three small kids. They try again. Tell us to call back at 1am. Call back. Denied again.

1am. Sleep.

3:30am. Wake up. Call back Emirates. Voucher denied again. Wake the kids. Tell them what is going on. 

4am. Six hours after the initial check-in attempt, we are in a van to the airport.

Chris and I had planned a reflective last day in Sri Lanka. Journals out, a family beach swim, pondering the milestone. Seven months in Asia soon behind us.

Instead, the world decides to shake things up. There is no marking of the moment, no reflection. 

What is astounding though, is how unfazed our kids are. They see it as an adventure, just another wacky thing in this journey. As we wake up the kids, Chris sees what the kids need more than I do.

We had joked that what we went through over the past few hours was akin to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief (of course, on a very inconsequential scale). There was the initial denial (this is not happening), then anger (Emirates is a *&(*$%$*), then bargaining (we have three kids, this change was unannounced, what can you do for us), then depression (we lost our final day in Asia), and finally, acceptance.

Waking the kids up, Chris wisely models to the kids the expansive possibilities of dealing with the unexpected. The kids watch us, and Emmet inquires – “Is this a good or a bad thing?” And in that moment, we have a choice. Is it a good or a bad thing? Well, at first it seemed like a very, very bad thing. But is it?

In the end, a narrative emerges – from that mysterious brew of our intentions and the kids’ reception of them. We calmly tell them that it indeed was unexpected. But even though the Emirates’ bureaucracy did not approve a voucher in advance, once we arrive in Dubai, I beseech them in person and they finally cave. We end up in a lavish hotel with a huge pool in fancy Dubai. The kids love it and take in how different Dubai is from anywhere else in our travels. It is ultimately easy, everything is accounted for, and we split up two long flights. Just another step in our wild year of travels. Not a tragedy. Perhaps even luck.

Nearly three days and 8000 kilometers after that first moment of incredulity, here I am. It’s 8am on our first morning in Italy, sunlight streaming into our Florence apartment. Emmet and Asa are playing lego in the other room. Obie is reading. Chris is listening to a podcast. We are both drinking delicious Italian coffee. I had a hot shower. The internet is fast. We have separate rooms from the kids and a real kitchen. It all feels utterly luxurious. We are in a brand new country, and yet there is a palpable relief, like we can now relax a bit more into this new stage of travel.

Sri Lanka -- Part II / Perspective [Trincomalee, Kandy, Ella]

We have tried to slow down these last few days, perched in our treehouse cabins, listening to gentle winds, birdcalls between branches, and scuffles between monkeys and dogs. 

On the heels of Wilpattu’s jungle safari, Jaffna’s off-the-beaten track discoveries, Trincomalee’s expansive beaches (snorkeling with sharks and turtles!), Kandy’s temples, and the epic train ride to Ella, we needed to slow down a bit.

So here we are, at a rustic but peaceful homestay among the trees in Sri Lanka’s jungly hill-country. The only guests here, we have landed in a town once overrun by tourists and banana pancakes, but that now – amidst the fallout of the country’s financial woes – struggles to stay afloat.

We do one activity a day – hike to Ella Rock, visit a tea plantation, bathe in a waterfall. Then Chris trains for his marathon (only marginally deterred by the steep gradients of the surrounding mountains), the kids do school and zone out on iPad, and we all venture into the town for meals.

It is our second-to-last stop in Sri Lanka; Friday we leave for Weligama, a beach/tourist town in the South of the country, for a final stretch of Indian Ocean before departing for Italy in a week.

We have been talking as a family about perspective. About how perspective is constructed and then solidified in hindsight, a complex concoction of ingredients: experience (comparison to what was and to what will be), intention (the 'texture' of how you want to view something), some mess of chemicals and chemistry of the bodymind in the moment, and of course the unknowable. What would Sri Lanka have been to us if it was our first or second stop on our journey? What if we had allowed moments of negativity to fester and permeate our impressions of place? What if our current stores of impatience – with food, with bugs, with the limitations of GB in our Wi-Fi usage – are more about our Italian future than our Sri Lankan present? We are not unhappy, but the gravitational pull is elsewhere. We are each, in our own ways, having to intentionally pull in the reins to keep us present and appreciating this life.

The wondrous complexity of this place - its softness, political/economic despondency, beauty, vibrant mixture of people, cultures and religions - seeps into us, but not in isolation of our place in time, of Italy on the horizon.

We are studying Italian, sharing articles about how to discern good gelato from the tourist stuff, and salivating over the familiarities of pasta and pizza, espresso and wine.  We are also anticipating the inevitability of culture shock. Of more senseless/sensible rules (we have warned the kids – no more 5 people in a tuk-tuk soon!), more tepid engagement with us as visitors, faster tempo, higher prices, lower temperatures, of a singular way to do something. And even though it may seem more familiar, Italy will also be a totally new culture, language, and set of rules by which to abide.

In the meantime, we do our best to drink in the beauty of this place, while acknowledging the drumbeat of anticipation in our psyches. Mountain peaks dotted with verdant tea plantations and rice paddies, gentle and sweet interactions with strangers, the mystery of what bug or frog will end up in our beds tonight.

Sri Lanka - Part I [Sigiriya, Dambulla, Jaffna]

It was 2002 when I traveled to Sri Lanka for the second time. I had first visited rather spontaneously in 1998 on the backside of my study abroad in Kerala, India. That visit was astoundingly wonderful. I landed in a geography and a group of cultures where, for no rational reason, I truly felt at home. I can only describe the feeling of a life reprieve – I could relax my muscles, I breathed easier, I knew the place in my body. Was that even possible?

Four years later, at the end of my graduate studies, I longed to escape the academic ivory tower of studying international conflict transformation and gain some experience in a place that had lived conflict. It was a moment of celebration in much of Sri Lanka, with a freshly brokered ceasefire after nearly 20 years of civil war. I worked at the country’s largest NGO and basked in the – what turned out to be – fleeting moment of levity, while witnessing the embittered consequences of decades-long strife, the insidious remnants of a colonial legacy that pitted ethnic groups against one another, and the ways religion and politics can have a nasty way of co-mingling. I left the country for the first time truly in love with a place, complexity and wrinkles and blind spots and beauty, as with any place and any group of humans.

I can’t believe how old I am when I say it’s been twenty plus years since then and am now taking my kids to see this place. It is so different here now, but some things remain. The sweet smells of burning trash, curry and coconut, the thick, humid air, bikes carrying 1-2-3 people grinning as they pass, students in their white uniforms strolling to and from school, cows wandering, an openness to talk about the war, the more recent economic struggles and the corruption of the government, and a real feeling of welcome.   

We started our three-week journey in Sigiriya and its environs – a well-trodden path – so my kids could get their Sri Lankan land legs and begin readying their mouths for Sri Lankan curries (for me, the most spicy curries I have ever tasted). We climbed Pidurangala, a mammoth rock adjacent to the famous Sigiriya, that had been occupied by Buddhist monks who lived in the caves around the rock for over 2,500 years. The climb began at a temple and then traveled straight upwards. It was utterly wondrous.

Of course, we had to get a tuk tuk back to our lodging because...

And then the well-known trek up Sigiriya/Lion Rock. I have now done this climb four times and each time I bury the utterly terrifying stairs to the top of this rock somewhere way deep in the crevices of my consciousness (watching your three kids and just hoping they don’t fall through the stairs – what a test of faith!). But we made it, marvelling at the wall frescoes and views at the top. On the steepest descent, wobbly knees, two sprightly monkeys jeered at us; we coaxed each other to ignore them and just continue the descent. Focus, one foot in front of the other.

A few more day trips:

Dambulla – 153 ancient carved Buddhas (and a few Hindu gods and Sri Lankan kings) in caves. Quiet, hollow, so many memories of my first sightings of these.

Wilpattu – a national park that was closed during the war as it was used to transport wartime supplies. We went on a safari here, as well as a night and morning bird walk. It was much less traveled than some of the safaris down south, so we really felt on our own during much of the four-hour, bumpy, video game-like, dodge-the-bushes jeep ride (poor Chris got whacked in the nose by a rogue branch!). We saw mongooses, crocodiles, birds of so many gorgeous varieties, spotted deer, bathing water buffalos, peacocks doing their mating dances, snakes, and then a gorgeous lightning storm that lit up the sky at dinner. No leopards or sloth bears, sadly!  

Where's Waldo!!! Can you find the snake in this picture?

We are now in Jaffna, in the very north of the country. In 2002, I was able to come to Jaffna as part of the NGO – through many security checkpoints with threatening officials wielding guns. A region besieged, bullet holes and bombed-out buildings. More than a decade after the end of the war, I so wanted to visit and show my kids this place. Also, as some of you know, Asa loves Hindu mythology; he really wanted to see the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, and visit a part of this country awash in Hindu temples and Tamil food. Here we are! 

It’s definitely off the beaten path, particularly because the train line connecting it to cities in the south is currently being upgraded. Seven months of travel have readied our kids for this - unpaved roads, finding ourselves in places without restaurants so they had to survive on biscuits instead of meals, long car rides, sweaty walks and boat rides, cultural practices that require them to quickly adapt, dodging rickshaws and scooters and bikes, not to mention cows, goats, duelling gangs of dogs, and today, a surprising donkey. 

That said, this place is a total wonder. Gorgeous temples, long lagoons, sand dunes, coastlines, incredible food, ancient forts. I am so glad we did the work to make it out here. And it's been so sweet to watch Asa bond with our Sinhalese Buddhist driver by walking him through Hindu temples - showing him the gods and explaining to him their stories. 

Driving around to the northern-most point of Jaffna and around the coast to Casuarina Beach

Bumpy roads, island hopping, sitting on the roof of a slightly sketchy boat, exploring Hindu and Buddhist temples (and all of their animal inhabitants) in Nainativu

Of course, no off-the-beaten-path trip would be complete without driving adventures. 

In the middle of sand dunes and washed out roads, working with Tamil villagers with whom we cannot communicate to figure out how to get our van through a washed-out road

Onwards, to the east of Sri Lanka!

Taiwan: Friends + Grounding

Our two-week journey in Taiwan was such a salve for our family. Our friends Karen, Phil and their three kids moved to Taiwan over a year ago. We have lived our lives in parallel. While our trips are very different, we are both living experiences that challenge and awe (and sometimes bring us to our knees), and I have been grateful for this shared witnessing. It was never a question in our minds if we would visit them in Taiwan. As I have aged/matured (?), I have realized more and more how important it is to witness each other - whether that be in times of pain or joy, transition or adventure. This was one of those times, and this trip was exactly what our family needed. 

The epitome of hosts, Karen and Phil planned out our whole trip, dividing it into shared family adventures, solo (our) family adventures, and woman-bonding and man-bonding overnights. We did not have to make one decision, and could lounge away in their fabulous apartment when we tired of the adaptations required for travel. They ordered for us, planned for us, created an environment where our kids could be kids with other kids, and manifested a home for us when we desperately needed one. 

Here are some photos of our two weeks of friendship, love, and re-grounding. 

En route! 

Our annoying parents always make us 'reflect' in our journals.

Loving the bullet trains.

So much kid time.

Man time sans kids to climb 3000m mountains on the Qilai Nanhua trail.

Solo Glick-Coldewey family time in Tainan.

Woman time sans kids to Wulei.

Dual family adventure in Yangmingshan.

As our kids said as we left, "it's harder to leave friends than it is to leave places." True that. 

Goodbye Vietnam, Goodbye Southeast Asia...and Happy Birthday, Emmet!

The disorienting/bittersweet/exciting feeling of being in-between places, Hanoi behind us, our plane starting its descent into Taipei. We were ready to leave Vietnam. At the same time, my feelings of connection and familiarity with this country had soared over the last few weeks. Amazing how psychology plays with your knowledge of the future, how emotional barriers relax, become more porous, when departure is in sight.  

I’ve been thinking about history lately. Thailand remained an independent nation for centuries. It resisted the formidable grips of colonizers and played cards of strategy and diplomacy to evade the territorial, political, economic, and social grabs of the 18-20th centuries. Alternatively, Vietnam’s history is a very different one, rife with foreign countries – Japan, China, France, the US – wielding power over place, trade, and people.

When I think back to our time in Thailand, it was very much about us getting our travel legs, me diving into a body-mind-spirit exploration of my next life moves, and pushing the limits of how we each could evolve as a family and as individuals. When I reflect on Vietnam, it was significantly less self-indulgent and more outwardly focused.

Rather, it was a much more profound engagement with place, history, and people. It was a deep seeking to understand a country that exuded resilience, open arms, strength, and stories. It was people loving on our children, hugging them maybe a bit too tightly (for their liking!), overflowing with warmth, care, and stories of aspiration and perseverance. It was going to museums and watching documentaries about its strikingly complex history, learning a different perspective from the US’ caricature.  

Was my draw to Vietnam because I could somehow connect to Vietnam’s colonized history as a white woman with European heritage? Was it because as a Jew I naturally draw towards people with stories of subjugation and oppression? Was it simply where we were in our trip, 6 months in, and the bandwidth I had available? Was it because we never found our three-month home and instead, wandered a bit more with traveler eyes rather than living eyes?

I leave Vietnam with conflicting feelings. In Chiang Mai, fresh off the plane from Vancouver, I could never have imagined missing the luxuries and routines of home. Now after six full months away, I am starting to feel some sort of gravitational pull. I see it in my kids’ eyes too. There is a bit more grumpiness, more impatience, less wow-ness. Who knows if that will wane as we embark on our next round of adventures. And yet, the warmth, informality, vibrancy, generosity, and authenticity of this place – I will miss that. I will miss the me surrounded by that. I will miss my kids’ absorption and reflection of that energy.

Our last day in Vietnam – our last day in Southeast Asia – was Emmet’s 9th birthday. To watch this kid’s evolution on this trip has been an honor. He has blossomed in ways I could never have foreseen. He has turned into a beautiful writer, photographer, astute navigator of Southeast Asian roads, engaging communicator across cultures, and has embodied physical and emotional bravery, resilience, and flexibility many times over.

While we have rules to temper expectations of birthdays on the road, we still try to make them memorable. Not to toot our horns, but I think we rocked this one. The night before his birthday, Emmet requested a 'date' with mom and dad, so we went to a fancy French dinner (without his brothers!). In the morning, we booked a private tour with a photographer to offer our budding photographer some tips and tricks of the trade and to practice on Hanoi streets. Then we met up with the family, ate our final bun cha, came back to our hotel where our hotel surprised him with a cake, went bowling (Emmet identifies as a successor to the legendary Glick bowling hereditary line) and to the arcade (where Emmet found the jackpot bowling game that doled out a gazillion tickets), and ate sushi. It was a pretty awesome day and sweet send-off from this country and region.  

And here are some shots Emmet took during his photography lesson (pre-editing). 

Some final Hanoi shots (from me/Chris).

I write this staring out of the 14th floor apartment window of our dear friends in Hsinchu, Taiwan. I am so grateful to be among friends-turned-family, to have some home time/peer time, and to ready ourselves for the next leg of the journey.