Back in the USSA

Don’t know how lucky you are

Sunrise or sunset? Mount Hood and Mount Rainier on the horizon.

Sunrise or sunset? Mount Hood and Mount Rainier on the horizon.

Written by Chris

Tampa, Florida – After over a year of travel and 50 weeks outside of the country, Mindy and I finally touched down back on US soil. A lot has happened to us over the last year, some we had a chance to share here, much we have not yet, and all of it we are still processing and reflecting on. What did we like and what did we not like? What was our favorite part, what did we learn, and how have our views changed? There are a hundred questions that we don’t have answers to yet. Those will come in time.

As I am rising to get off our plane, I look into the Tampa terminal and see the Mindy and Chris from a year ago waiting to board their very first flight out of the country at the start of their trip. They look so fresh and clean-cut; hair in place, clothes all clean, everything looks brand new. It seems like a lifetime ago that that was us sitting there.

As I am walking down the jetway, I start to think of all the things I want to tell them when I walk past them, of all the tips and warnings they need to make their trip count. To carry more money and less stuff. I want to tell them to seize the opportunity to see the sights when they have the chance because they might not get another chance, but I also want to tell them to build rest time into the travel schedule so they don’t burn out.

I want to tell them to keep a closer eye on their pockets in Ecuador, to avoid that hotel with all the bugs, not to skip the volcano tour. I need to tell them not to trust the salesmen in Tanzania, not to take the train to Johannesburg, and to bring more light clothing for the heat in Malawi. They need to have good-fitting packs and shoes for all the hiking in Nepal and to gird their loins for the chaos of India. Eat all the green curry you can in Thailand, study your Kung Fu, and savor your time with the rescue dogs. And bring some extra money for Australia because it it $$$!

All these thoughts are whirling through my head as I enter the terminal and see last year’s Mindy and Chris sitting a ways inside. I need to choose what bits of wisdom to pass on and I’m almost up to them. I keep reflecting on all the things we’ve done in the last year and the list is staggering. I need to make sure they get the most out of their opportunity. I can help them to avoid all the mistakes we made and to make it perfect. I keep going over all these stores of woe, these awesome stores, and trying to decide which to warn them about.

And suddenly I am there. Right in front me is last year’s me, who is looking up at me expectantly. I take a breath and I hear myself saying,

“Have a great trip.”

I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

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Annapurna in pictures

Written by Chris

Te Anau, New Zealand – A new photo release. Here comes a feast of images from our hike around the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. We spent about a month hiking almost every day, sleeping and eating in small lodges, and soaking in the big scenery. Have a gander:

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K K K K K Kathmandu photo time

Written by Chris

Te Anau, New Zealand – Still working on consolidating all the exciting data we are generating! Here is our photo set from our time back in Kathmandu.

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Moving through the Amazon

Written by Chris

Te Anau, New Zealand – Well, Mindy and I are still kicking around New Zealand (stuff on that to come), but for now we have the release of some video from some of our travels from way back. Here, for your viewing pleasure is a video summary of our time in the Amazon Jungle. Have fun!

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Kung Fu Travel


Written by Chris

Christchurch, New Zealand – I’ve still been reflecting on my recent kung fu days and, in particular, something one of our instructors said has been rattling around in my head. During one training session, he told us,

I have never found anything that made me feel so “in the moment” as martial arts does. When you are immersed in a conflict, there is no space for your mind to chatter and that is what has drawn me to center my life around kung fu.

And I got to thinking that that is often what a great proportion of us are after in life; to feel connected or present or in a state of mindfulness or flow or whathaveyou. We go after it in different ways, through competition or art or especially extreme sports, we are looking to be “in the moment” in what we do. It has to be challenging, but not excessively so, and novel but not alien. In short, the task has to stretch us to just beyond our current mental capacity so that there are no spare mental cycles left to chatter in the background.

And then I got to thinking that travel is another vehicle for this and maybe that is why so many of us are drawn to it. It is challenging managing schedules and navigating foreign worlds; everything is novel from the scenery to the culture to the languages, and sometimes it takes every bit of your mental capacity just to get yourself a good meal. A lot of times when people are recounting a memory from some past travel experience (say, “I remember this one time when I was standing in Rome and the way the sun hits the buildings was just incredible.”) what they are really recalling is a time when they were completely immersed in the moment and just taking it all in.

The really good news is that we don’t need to repeatedly jump out of airplanes or travel around the world to get this experience. Mindfulness is a skill that can be cultivated. We also studied meditation during our training and I found great little book in the kung fu library, The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk out of Vietnam. It is a great practical instruction book on creating a mindfulness practice in everything we do. What is really boils down to is to learn to appreciate the feelings and sensations going through you right now and stop worrying about the problems of the past or the worries of the future. Or, in the words of the master himself,

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.
-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

He then goes on to say,

If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.

In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

To do so is entirely free and entirely up to you.

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Our Time Down Under

Scoping out an Outback Steakhouse

Scoping out an Outback Steakhouse

Written by Chris

Our final stop on this big whirlwind of ours was to be New Zealand, but, due to flight availability, we ended up going through Sydney instead. So we decided to make the most of it and spend a week in Australia on our way to kiwi country.

AND we have a visitor!

Hugs under the harbor bridge

Hugs under the harbor bridge

Mindy’s bestest friend, Mary, came out to join us for a while on this leg of the journey and it is great to have her along!

While most of North America was enjoying the Polar Vortex and various other freezes, Australia has been having a record hot summer with high temperatures over 111 F. Fortunately, we came in at the tail end of summer and missed all of that but, unfortunately, this time of year also means rain. After successfully dodging rain and monsoon seasons all over the world, our first few days in Sydney treated us to rain and gloom. But that didn’t stop us from exploring.

Nothing but water in our first few days in the sunburnt country

Nothing but water in our first few days in the sunburnt country

We stayed in the King’s Cross neighborhood which was a trendy little area just about a mile from town center. Australia really marks a return to civilization for us after 3 months in SE Asia and 3 months in Africa and we have really been living it up. It is nice to have all the great, healthy foods we have been missing (fancy pizza, burritos, pitas, Australian meat pies, and burritos … again), being able to buy things without having to weed through counterfeits, and, best of all, enjoying safe drinking water RIGHT OUT OF THE TAP!

It is the little things that you miss the most. We did spend some time seeing the sights in and around Sydney and here are some of the highlights.

Mardi Gras / Gay Pride Parade

40 days until Easter and it’s time for a parade! For reasons not clear to us, the Mardi Gras parade in Sydney is also their Gay Pride Parade. In fact, there was nothing Mardi Gras about the parade except for the date. It was, however, a pretty great party with music, beach balls, and some excellent floats.

Where are all the cajun masquerades?

Where are all the cajun masquerades?

They are doing a great job of promoting gay rights, awareness and education. I even learned that the “Gay and Lesbian” label has expanded to LGBT and now on to LGBQTI and that facebook now offers over 50 choices for gender. I was also surprised with the range of groups showing support with a float in the parade, most notably the Australian armed forces; army, navy, and air force. An impressive show of public support, considering we only just got past “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the US military.

It’s no San Francisco but it was a pretty fun time.

Blue Mountains

About a 2-hour train ride from downtown Sydney is Blue Mountain National Park. It is so named for the mountains which appear blue from a distance for the same reason the sky is blue except that the effect is enhanced by the mist of oil from the surrounding eucalyptus trees. We started from the unbelievably cute mountain town of Katoomba perched high on one side of the valley and we toured along the edge taking in the views of the mountains out into the valley and of the many waterfalls dumping down into it.


The morning fog cover left us very worried, but things cleared up and gave us our first dry day for some excellent hiking and views.

With the 3 stone sisters of the Blue Mountains

With the 3 stone sisters of the Blue Mountains

Sydney Opera

The Sydney Opera House and nearby harbor bridge are an iconic sight and we didn’t miss our chance to check them out.

Operas and sunsets

Operas and sunsets

The building itself is quite beautiful situated on the harbor. At certain times of day it looked a bit drab, but lit up at night is when it is at its best. I was really struck with the architectural design of it as well. It seems that the building’s segments were designed as pieces cut from a single sphere:


But why stop at just looking? There were 3 operas playing during the time we were there. Carmen (a Spanish opera by Bizet) and The Magic Flute (German, Mozart) didn’t fit our schedule so we went to see Eugene Onegin, a Russian opera by Tchaikovsky.

Though I tried, I am afraid I am not a fan of opera. It is not that is was in Russian; we had a synopsis of each act and there were English subtitles and the story was quite easy to follow. I simply did not like the “opera voice” that everything was sung in. I have no doubt that the performers were some of the best in the world at what they do but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

I did, however, enjoy the inside of the opera house just as much as the outside. The style brings you right back to the ’70s and it was full of exposed concrete and wood. The opera hall itself was surprisingly small with the orchestra crammed underneath the stage and even our cheap seats felt reasonably close.

Taronga Zoo

Rather than take a safari into the outback, we used our limited time to see the crazy Australian animals en masse at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney.

The zoo itself was fabulous. It had all the weirdos we were looking for; platypus, tazmanian devil, kangaroo, wallaby, and Australians (G’day? What’s that? I’m not your mate :). The zoo was beautifully arranged and landscaped and its location across the harbor from downtown Sydney was used to great effect.

Zoo with a view

Zoo with a view

They also have a few innovative enclosures (might be old news to zoo regulars, but it has been a while since I’ve been to one). There was one open area full of kangaroos and wallabys and lizards and stuff that visitors could just walk through, so long as they stayed on the path. No fences or barriers or anything, just walking through ‘roo country with a member of zoo staff nearby in case things got rowdy. There was another similar enclosure for lemurs that had just opened up to visitors the day before. It was a great way to get close to the animals and I was impressed at how well the design let us check each other out without freaking each other out.

He has a great koala-ty of life (zing!)

He has a great koala-ty of life (zing!)

And we caught a seal show!

A totally useful skill for a seal to have

A totally useful skill for a seal to have


Australia is a trip in itself and our week did not do it justice. We still experienced a bit of the culture of downtown Sydney and got to see the sights on our way through. But now we’re off to the neighbor to the East. Cheers, mate!

Later, alligator

Later, alligator

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Finding a Place

Written By Mindy

Doing a bit of throwback to finish up Nepal. While Chris has been good and getting posts up in a prompt matter, it has taken me a bit to catch up. (Hopefully I can do so eventually!)


Over the last 10 years of moving around pretty constantly, I found out that I can really feel at home anywhere. While I definitely like some places more than others, Denver has always felt more me than California and I am definitely more Californian than East Coaster, for the most part every place I visit I could find a way to live there.

It’s happened on the trip as well. I felt very comfortable at Lake Malawi, loved the quietness of the Andes in Ecuador, and absolutely could have moved in at the Charles Darwin Tortoise Research Center in the Galapagos. The only place that was a definite pass was Panama City and even then if it hadn’t been for the heat/humidity, who knows.

However, nothing prepared me for how quickly and deeply I would fall in love with Nepal or how right we both would feel there. While this is definitely a cliche, Nepal was us and if it wasn’t for Chris’ practicalness, I think we would be living in a little mountain town called Kagbeni and helping young monks in training learn to speak English.


Chris and I are obviously not the only ones who feel this way. There are probably (maybe?) 200,000 western foreigners living in Nepal and maybe a million more that visit each year. (These may not sound like very large numbers but Nepal is tiny.) It was almost comical how often we would run into older couples and have them tell us how this was their 20th+ visit to Nepal and how they come every year because they just can’t stay away. Nepal definitely has its share of downfalls, poverty is a serious issue and the relaxed pace of life becomes very frustrating when you are trying to do things like mail a package or plan ahead, but overall, for whatever reason, it is a place that made us feel welcome and just plain good, something that was a great relief to us after being away from home for so long.


I keep looking back and trying to figure out what it was that touched me and I am guessing most other people who visit, so much. The simple answer is that the Himalayas are majestic in an unparalleled way, the people are incredibly warm and absolutely charming, and it’s got a lovely pace of life, that is a true relief after living in places where “I am so busy” is a sign of status. There is also an underlying endurance and steadiness that I think comes from living and surviving in such a harsh place for centuries and a tranquility that seems to permeate the culture as a result of their spirituality. Both were things I felt and while I can’t exactly explain them, it gave me a level of peace I haven’t found in any other place.


As Chris mentioned in an earlier post, we spent most of our time in Nepal walking. We try to take long walks everywhere we go as it is really the best way to experience a place but this was the first time where we just walked for weeks on end, through towns, the countryside, and everything in between and all I can say is it was beautiful.


Walking gives you a chance to see and feel things you would completely miss if you were just driving by. It also gives you a chance to absorb them instead of just rushing off to the next thing. You can start to feel and take on the energy that flows through a place, whether it’s the craziness of Kathmandu or the simple joy of sitting in the sunshine in a village. You also often get the opportunity to be a part of place as well as just an observer. We walked beside Monks as they went out to collect alms, chatted with children as they headed to school (and by chatted I mean answered what is our name over and over again as most only knew a few sentences inEnglish), and even got to experience a bit of Diwali as children went around and sang for candy.


Since we did the Annapurna Circuit, which has been the most trekked place in Nepal, it was very much a tourist loop, especially on the first side. This definitely had its pluses, as we had access to many services, met lots of other travelers, and had a variety of food, but also had its downfalls as we met lots of other travelers, had to contend with the road, and definitely missed a lot of the actual culture of Nepal.

The second side was definitely more meaningful (even if we did have to say goodbye to some great friends) as we spent most of our time on side paths, walking along farms and through tiny towns, and we were often on our own as most backpackers take a bus or plane down. One of the greatest experiences for me was just sharing a Namaste (a greeting in Nepal that roughly means I bow to the divine within you)  as he was herding his goats down the side of the mountain. It was just a minute but it has stuck with me for how amazing it is that two cultures who couldn’t be more different were able to share that moment and a smile. I also have to say that most of the Nepalese I met have the most beautiful smiles. Their smiles feel genuine and their happiness and peace seems to radiate from them. (I now attribute that to Buddhism as Thais also share this trait.)


All of this is obviously my feeling about a country we really only saw at a glance. It takes much longer than 6 weeks to really know a place and I’m actually not sure that I believe a westerner can ever truly understand most eastern cultures. There is a longevity or permanence and different way of viewing life, death, and everything in between that seems almost impossible for most of us to grasp. Reincarnation alone creates a whole new way of looking at the cycle of life and a whole different mentality towards the future. As one Jain explained it to me if you think there is a possibility of you or your deceased mother coming back as a grasshopper, you are going to treat that grasshopper much differently.

So while Chris and I only got a taste of this amazing country, we do know the warmth and beauty we experienced has made it a place we definitely want to go back and experience more of. After all, how can you ever pass up the opportunity to be here?





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Chapter the Next

Get ready for a bunch of crazy, made-up words!

Get ready for a bunch of crazy, made-up words!

Written by Chris

Sydney, Australia – Mindy and I arrived in Sydney early this morning to a wonderfully cool rainy day; a fantastic break from the humid hundred-degree days in Bangkok. This marks the last continent of our journey and a bit of a return to civilization as we know it. After 3 months in Asia (preceded by 3 months in Africa), we’re re-adjusting to all this cleanliness, being able to eavesdrop in our native language, no longer being giants, and to seeing so many darn white people everywhere.

Asia was a great time and it went by much to quickly. We went hiking in Nepal, skirted across the the north of India, hung out in Bangkok and Malasia, learned kung fu and saved the dogs in northern Thailand. Though it is getting westernized, the culture is very different from any I have ever experienced. We definitely plan on coming back to explore some of the places we missed.

Now that we are in Australia, we’ll be easing back into enjoying some modern comforts and we’re also getting shocked with modern prices. E.g. it cost us less that $3 to take transit to the airport in Bangkok and, on the other side in Sydney, the train set us back a cool $34. Welcome to the future. Ah well, as long as I can make it out to an Outback Steakhouse, have a Foster’s beer, and pay a visit to my dentist, Dr. P. Sherman on 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, everything is going to be okay.

It’s a shame things aren’t still as carefree and strange as they were in the ’80s:


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Kung Fu Learning

Stop. Learning time

Stop. Learning time

Written by Chris

Pai, Thailand – The term “kung fu” comes from the Chinese term Gōngfu (功夫). It consists of two characters whose meanings can be translated as an “achievement” and “effort”. In other words, it is an accomplishment that requires great time and energy to achieve. It is also in no way tied to martial arts in Chinese and you can be “Gōngfu” at anything; Gōngfu cooking, Gōngfu pianist, or Gōngfu knitting, if you want. It just means that you have gained mastery over your art over a long period of dedicated work. So it came as no surprise that traditional kung fu instruction is very slow-paced and very deep.

A thousand years ago, if you wanted to learn a martial art, you would have to seek out a master and first prove your dedication to the art. Once the master knew he wouldn’t be wasting his time on you and accepted you as a student, the training would likely start with one core move, one stance, or one exercise. The master would leave you to practice that one thing sometimes for months or even up to a few years. He may come and critique you or correct your form or he may not, but the point is for the student to build up the foundational principles through their own persistent work.

I am packing up today, my last day of kung fu training, and I have been reflecting on the things I have been learning in the last month and how the learning methods contrast with how I am used to being taught. The first thing that stands out is that it is taught as a system, not a linear, a-la-carte process like today’s education system. I have come to think of it like building a house. You start with a foundation, a few basic concepts like stance, positioning, making a proper fist. Then you add a frame, in our case it was various forms, sequences of moves to practice. Then you continue to add to the house’s structure, walls and floors and roof (more positions in the forms). You add the systems such as plumbing and electrical (controlling your breath and your gaze). You finish everything up and make it useable. And then you add little details, finishing touches, personalization, and you continue to refine and refine for years and years to make it just right. But the house, like kung fu training, is never really complete. It is a continuous process.

Daily sunrise meditations

Daily sunrise meditations

I am also fascinated by the emphasis here on not just learning the external but also the internal aspects. The external is what I am doing with my body, where I am holding my arm for a block for example, but the internal is what is going on in my mind. We talk about things like moving (or striking) with intent not strength, about focusing on the feel of our bodies, and about keeping mindful and staying present in our thoughts. It is the kind of thing that an instructor cannot show you how to do. He can give you some tips, but ultimately it is up to you to develop on your own. You can mimic the external actions of kung fu without getting any of the results if you do not have the internal skills as well.

There were many things I thought I might learn before I came here. There were basics like punching, kicking, and blocking. Perhaps I would learn some ancient training techniques like punching a tree to toughen my fist or running across standing logs to improve balance. Or maybe I could learn some fancy moves like a roundhouse kick or maybe even the 5 point palm exploding heart technique. We did almost none of this. The reality of what I learned was much more valuable:

  • How to stand – The stance was the most important skill and we used it in almost everything. It means almost everything in a confrontation and without it you are easily overtaken. The really key part for me was keeping a straight spine. My lower back feels a lot better, I can breathe easier with the chest up, and I’m even a bit taller. I can really appreciate the value of good posture now.
  • How to breathe – Again, we practiced breathing in most all of our exercises and coordinated it with our movements. At first, I felt like I was suffocating as I tried to breathe from my belly rather than the chest, and to hold it through some sequences. But now, I feel my breath coming so much easier, not just in training but all the time. It is slower and deeper and I feel so much more relaxed. Another great skill to have.
  • How to focus – We do a fair amount of meditation practice both stationary and while performing some of the forms. The objective is to keep the mind centered on the present moment and out of the past and future. I know that I, like most people, usually have my mind buzzing with things I need to do but there is no room for that in kung fu. Quieting my mind has been incredibly refreshing and, even in spite of all the hard physical training, I find I am sleeping less at night since I get plenty of mental rest during the day. Mindfulness is magical.

So perhaps it wasn’t everything I was expecting, but the experience has been incredibly valuable in ways I would not have expected. I have trained here with some interesting people from all over the world, and it has been a pleasure to learn from Master Iain and his crew. If you feel like taking a trip to northern Thailand, I can highly recommend the Nam Yang Kung Fu Retreat. It has been well worth the trip.

Here is Master Iain taking an axe to the stomach:

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From West to East

Golden cockerel standing on one leg with camera

Golden cockerel standing on one leg with camera

Written by Chris

I have been training at the Nam Yang kung fu retreat for 3 weeks now and I have so far learned that I have a lot to learn. One of the big themes here, for me at least, is the difference between Western and Eastern philosophies.

If I had to describe kung fu in one would, that would be “tradition“. You do as your master says because that is how his master taught him. Back home, we tend to value what is new and improved. Here, they tend to value lineage. In the West, we use the scientific method to show us what works. In the East, they know what works because it has been in constant use for thousands of years. What works is what survives.

It has been a real struggle for me in many ways. After all, I am a man of science, am I not? I try to trust in the training and the tradition and take the master’s instructions while I wait for the results. It does not always make sense, and often the instructor cannot explain why we do what we do. But we do know, from the hundreds of generations that studied before us, that we need to do it if we want to reach our goals.

Yes. I dare.

Yes. I dare.

I have tried my best to come into this with an open mind, but I have my limits. It is all interesting to learn about, but I am getting sucked down a rabbit hole of Chinese herbs, Reiki healing, Ayurvedic medicine, Chi and auras, crystals, and, yes, even astrology.

It is hard for me to believe much of it but there is often a grain of truth in these things. I don’t think that science is the be-all and end-all either; there are many things that science cannot explain (at least not yet), but I also don’t believe in absolute blind faith either. What is really interesting is when these two sides meet up in the middle. For example, meditation is an ancient practice and is especially prominent in eastern philosophies. With recent brain monitoring techniques, science has been verifying some of the claims that meditators have been making for centuries such as elevated mood, enhanced perception, and reduced need for sleep.

I am not yet sure what I will take away from what I am learning here, but for the time being, I will continue to try to cultivate my chi in the mornings and eat the healing herbs with my meals. I think, as with many things, there is a core truth that we are after and we lack the language to fully describe. You can call it chi or lifeforce or potential energy or a soul, but we don’t really know it completely. As long as we keep studying, though, the picture continues to get clearer.

I’m pretty good with a bo staff

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