10th January
written by Ilana

I know that a few months ago I wrote this whole thing about feeling bad about not writing, and how we were about to change that, etc.  Obviously, we did not hold to our end of the bargain, since you can see that we have not written in quite some time.

The thing is, I think I’m a decent storyteller.  I’m good when it comes to an entertaining/ridiculous tale of the madness that is the life of the backpacker.  What I’m not as good at is describing how I feel about the state of the world as I see it, or discussing all the questions that I am constantly asking on this trip.

At some point in Asia I reached a turning point when travel became less about the crazy stories and more about the difficult questions, and honestly, I found those issues difficult to write about.  Even more than the difficulty of the subject matter, I find that I am scared to write something stupid, since I do not have a degree in public policy and as a matter of fact I know little about global politics in general, so I feel like I am an inappropriate speaker on such issues.

Bloom looks over my shoulder.  “Why are you writing about excuses?” He asks me.  “Just write!”

Ugh, fine.  So here it goes, a disorganized, stream of consciousness post:

I will start by saying that we are currently in Luang Prabang, Laos in a “fancy” guesthouse.  We decided to splurge ($23/night) for Bloom’s birthday, and it’s totally worth it.  Clean sheets, a balcony overlooking the Mekong river, a clean bathroom.  Luxury for us.

We discovered yesterday that this place also came with a middle aged, large-ish American man and his much younger, svelte, Asian female companion.  We have seen many of these mis-matched couples here in Laos and also in Bangkok.  Are they just an inter-racial couple, or is she a prostitute?  Is it rude of me to think that she probably is his prostitute?  Possibly.  The couple spends their time sitting on the balcony while the man drinks beer after beer and blasts loud American classic rock from speakers.  He is basically declaring to the world that he owns this place.  He will play music that blasts throughout the guesthouse and the streets, and he doesn’t give a shit about people who might not want to listen to it.  Something about this man, his “his relationship,” and his music is driving me nuts.  This is what people think of America.  An occupying force.  A few minutes ago, to prove some sort of ridiculous point, I went out to our balcony and started blasting “Jump Around,” which seemed to be an appropriate fight song to his classic rock.  I only have a computer, so my music was not nearly as loud.  I looked down to the street and saw a bunch of locals staring up at the balcony toward the American man and his loud music, and I realized that it was not worth a music war, I was not stooping to his level, so I came back inside, turned off Jump Around, gave in to listening to “Free Ride” from the other room, and started to write.

In terms of Laos in general—it’s a great place to be.  I would advise everyone I know to come on a vacation to Luang Prabang.  It has everything.  It’s beautiful, and it’s cheap, and people are friendly.  On the other hand, it has fancy places for the more upscale, and it’s not completely “rustic” like the places in Sumatra.  So what are you waiting for?  Get over here!

For weeks, and much to the chagrin of anyone we hung out with in Burma and was forced to listen, Bloom and I debated back and forth about if we should even come to Laos at all, since we don’t have so much time in southeast Asia.  Finally, the day we arrived in Bangkok, last Friday, we decided, screw it, let’s just go to Laos, and we’ll work it out from there.   On Sunday night we got on a train to the Thai-Lao border, and Monday morning we were in Vientiane.  My brother and Bloom both said that Vientiane was lame and we should not spend much time there, but in the end we spent 2 and a half days there, and loved it.  We had just been in Burma days before, and then had a rushed weekend in Bangkok, and we needed time to just breathe for a bit.  Vientiane was perfect for breathing.  We spent our time drinking lattes (or tea for Bloom), eating baguettes, and talking to people at the local French cafes, and in the evening we would watch the sunset over the Mekong and wander the night market.

Over the past month or so we have been much more social with other travelers.  It seems that in Southeast Asia the travelers are just really friendly, which is nice for us.  In South America, we rarely met friendly people (we were instead snubbed by hordes of Israelis), and in Indonesia and China we rarely ever saw other backpackers.

In Burma we did a three day trek  from Kalaw (a small town in the hills of the Northern Shan State that looks shockingly similar to Alon Shvut…) to Inle Lake, another small town in the same state 60 km away, which, as its name suggests, is on a lake.  Our trekking group had a total of 8 people, and it was a fascinating group of characters.  There were two guys who were actually from the Chicago area!  That was very exciting for me, and led to great nostalgic talks of skiing in Wisconsin and summer weekends in Lake Geneva.  One of them currently lives in Hong Kong, and the other in NY.  There was a Canadian woman who had spent the past decade living in Europe, a New Yorker living in Singapore, a woman from Reunion Island (which I shamefully did not know of before this encounter.  It’s near Madagascar, but part of France), and an older Israeli man who spoke to us about the superiority of Israeli produce.  “The strawberries are the best in the world!  And the cucumbers!”

I really liked this group, and it was nice to spend three days with such interesting people, and when we got to Inle we continued to eat dinner with the other trekkers almost every night until they slowly left for other destinations, while we stayed in Inle, reading, biking, taking a boat trip and generally lazing around in our deluxe balcony room.

The thing I realized when hanging out with the trekkers was how JEWISH we are.  What I mean is, we don’t notice this so much on a daily basis, but our Jewishness has taken over our lives.  We decided to explain about our eating habits, and because I didn’t want the trekkers to think we’re fanatics, I felt the need to thoroughly explain our practice and our choices in great detail, and then after I would finish speaking, I would feel horribly neurotic about seeming like a religious fanatic to these people who I really liked.  When I listened to what Bloom and I were telling these people, I tried to imagine what they must think, and then I realized that we sound completely crazy, and all my religious questions, that I thought I had filed away when I was 22, came flooding back into my mind gnawing at my so-called frum self.  I explained to the trekkers—‘Judaism is a value system that helps me be mindful of everything in my life, that’s why there are all of these seemingly small details,’  but after I spoke, I silently questioned what I had said.  Does all this ritual actually do anything?  Who am I doing this for?  Other people help change the world through belief in social justice and good deeds, why isn’t that as meaningful as a religion?

On our last night in Inle, after our trekker friends had all left town, we found ourselves in an Indian restaurant in a conversation with other backpackers.  There were two Americas, a Malaysian guy and a Slovakian woman, and somehow the conversation turned to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  The American man was talking about atheism, and how it made sense, and about a quote someone said about how it really makes no sense to say that children have a religion, and that religion is generally dangerous and causes wars, etc.  For some reason this made me feel anxious and defensive.  I started wondering if he knew Bloom and I were religious Jews,  wondering if we could make it through an entire conversation without me blowing our cover and mentioning something about being Jews.  I’m probably more agnostic than anything else, but still, for some reason I felt the need to defend believers.  I went on a rant about how religion doesn’t make someone evil, an evil person if he wants to do evil, will use anything as his excuse for committing evil acts.  People can use religion for good, or they can use it for evil, people can use science for good, or they can use it for evil.  That’s how the world works.  I then referenced a South Park episode about Richard Dawkins and a future world war not about religion, but about details of evolution, to prove my point.  I didn’t stop there, and I went on to talk about how it would be wrong to say that Islam is the cause of terrorism, it’s not Islam, it’s certain people using Islam.  I’m not a muslim, but I would be pretty pissed off right now that the whole world thinks I’m a terrorist, when really it’s just some assholes using Islam as an excuse.  You can find an excuse to kill people in anything!

The Malaysian guy beamed.  I am a Muslim, and I am angry about this!  I’m Jewish and I’m angry for you, I said.  And there it went.  I was back to putting myself in the Jewish box.  The conversation went on for a while and in the end the Malaysian guy gave his phone number so we can meet up in Kuala Lumpur when we’re there later this month.  The whole thing was interesting, and it made me re-remember that I am Jewish, because I can’t not be.  I feel it in my bones.  I feel the need to defend religion, I feel the need to defend Jews, I feel that I cannot eat that delicious looking grilled chicken on a stick, and I feel committed.  This is not compelling, but it is true.  The thing is that traveling has made me question everything.  Maybe it’s because I have the luxury of time, maybe it’s because I am seeing new things and meeting new people, but either way, I feel like everything needs to be reevaluated—be it my religious identity or my politics or how I spend my money.

When we went to China I became obsessed with learning more about global politics, about world history, about policy, about development, about everything, and I was overwhelmed by how little I knew about anything.  I read a handful of books about China and watched tons of Chinese government propaganda TV to try to bring me up to speed, obviously I am not even close to up to speed, but I am trying.  The thing about China that is so unfathomable to me is that in many ways it is a totally developed country.  The Beijing and Shanghai subway lines put the NYC subway to shame.  Both those cities seem more modern than any American city, and there are fancy expensive shops everywhere you turn.  But, at the same time, the fact that a Chinese citizen cannot openly say anything critical of the government, that websites are blocked, that news is censored, that the cultural revolution took place (!!) is totally shocking to me.  The shocking part lies in the modernity of its big cities, I think.  At least for me, I didn’t expect such a “modern” place to have such closed policies, and I felt guilty about loving China so much, although a big part of that love was out of sheer fascination for the place, and because I want to know more about the country, it’s citizens, and it’s policies.  If we could have overstayed our Chinese visas, I would have.  I would still be in China now if I knew we had more time.  I want to learn Chinese.  I want to befriend Chinese people and live in this crazy place that feels so alive and also so stifling all at once.  But, alas, we moved on to our next country, since this year is not meant for serious iyyun (in depth) on any particular place, but a b’kiyut (overview) study of the world.  For now.

18th August
written by Ilana

I rationally knew that in traveling for a year, I was bound to have difficult days or weeks, since over the course of a year there will obviously be better days than others, but when many problems came up, seemingly one after the other and then another, I fell apart.


Last Sunday was an amazing day.  We flew from the jungle to La Paz, and met up with my mother there at her hotel—the Radisson.  My mom and Amit decided to be nice and booked us a room at the Radisson as well, which was amazing, probably the best day of my life.  There were carpeted rooms, hot showers, a pool, cable TV!!  I couldn’t even believe how amazing it was to feel clean and not freezing.

My mom took us to dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was amazing, but sadly I had horrible altitude sickness yet again, and could not enjoy it as much as I would have liked.  At one point I got up from the table to go to the bathroom, and as I turned to flush the toilet, I saw something on my lower back.  Oh no.  Oh my God, it was definitely a tick.  Well, maybe this is why I haven’t been feeling well!  Altitude sickness plus a tick sucking my blood for days.  Ok, well, I need to be strong here.  I turned around and pulled it out with my hand.  Ewwww.  I was disgusted and proud of myself for being such a badass and pulling a tick out of my own body with my hands.  I looked at it.  Yup, it was a tick.  I thought about bringing it back to the table to show my mom and Bloom and then decided against it and flushed it down the toilet instead.

So, even in luxury I was still a dirty backpacker with ticks.  Ugh, it was probably from that day when they made us walk around the unkempt backyard!  Ew.  I was so grossed out, that I couldn’t sit in the restaurant anymore and went back to the room to console myself with cable tv.  It was good consolation.

My mom left on Monday morning, and that is when the week from hell began.  We had to leave the Radisson and go back to our backpacker hostel life.  We actually found a hostel with cable TV, which was awesome because I was getting sicker by the day, and was too weak to even leave the bed.  The altitude sickness was hitting me badly once again, but I also had some sort of flu on top of it.  I spent Monday and Tuesday sitting in bed in the hostel in La Paz, sick as a dog, but at least there was the TV and internet to keep me entertained.

I felt like such a loser.  I was in Bolivia, and all I could do was watch 90210 reruns?  What a waste!  I felt guilty about wasting our Bolivia time.

Our original plan had been to go to southern Bolivia, do a tour of the salt flats, and then move on to Argentina.  However, it turns out that many of the southern Bolivian roads are blocked because of a strike, and many tourists have been trapped for weeks in different parts of Bolivia.

We decided that it was not worth it for us to try to break through a foreign strike, and we would just have to skip southern Bolivia and escape via plane to Argentina.  I felt like I was no longer a badass, because a real backpacker badass would take some sort of 26 hour bus over crazy roads to try to get through the strike, but alas, we have a 90th birthday part to get to, and I’ll be damned if some Bolivian strikers try to stop us!


Fine, so we flew to Salta, Argentina on Wednesday only to discover that every double room with a private bathroom in the whole city was booked for the entire weekend, and I was still sick, possibly getting worse.  I was shocked when I had enough strength to drag myself onto our flight, and I had resigned myself to spending the next few weeks on the floor of the La Paz airport bathroom.

We settled on a room without a bathroom, which looked like a prison cell.  The floors were concrete and had dirt stains on them, and there was no window.  We figured we would go to a nice hotel for my birthday on Friday, but the nice hotels were also all booked.  Even our prison cell was booked for the weekend.  Were we going to spend my birthday sleeping on the street?  Bloom spent much of Thursday morning going from hostel to hostel to hotel trying to find any available room, bathroom or not, and after many hours finally found one in some random hostel, as I lay in bed, STILL sick and spiraling into despair.

I had falsely believed that as soon as we arrived in Argentina, life would get easier.  Everything would be nicer.  It was certainly more expensive, so we figured there would be hot showers or better communication or something, but there was not.  I also thought Salta was going to be a cute, small town, but it was a relatively big city and it was freezing and a bit gray.  Most of the cool stuff in the Salta area requires a day trip to reach, and on Thursday I was still too sick to do anything, so it was another wasted day for us.

We figured that by Friday I would be better, and booked a day trip tour to a small town called Cafayate.  The tour was going to be in English and it would be chilled out, stopping at look out points and some wineries.  I figured this would be a festive way to spend my birthday.  I imagined being with a tour group, in some beautiful winery, where everyone would toast to my birthday and it would be awesome.  That would get me out of this funk.  And everything was fine, we had a tour, we had a hostel for Friday and Saturday night, and Sunday we were leaving Salta to move on to Iguazu, so it would all be fine, I told myself.

Friday morning, I woke up and was still feeling very sick, but it was early in the morning, so I figured I was just tired, and anyway, it was too late to cancel the tour.  We got on the mini tour bus and the guide began speaking in Spanish.  He spoke for about 5 minutes straight in Spanish, the crowd eating it up, laughing, joking with him, etc.  He then looked at us and said “this is a tobacco field.”

Seriously?  Bloom and I gave each other a look.  There was no way he was translating everything for us.  Everyone else on the bus spoke Spanish.  Oh well.  I was too tired and sick to even get angry anymore.  I just stared out the window and tried not to cough and sneeze over the other passengers.  We got out of the bus a few times, but I could hardly move.  I was freezing and my whole body hurt from being sick.  Eventually, we got out at a winery where a woman gathered up our group and another group, and started giving a tour in Spanish

I looked around and saw the tour guide from the other group standing with 5 people from his group, speaking to them in English.  “I will walk you through it and speak to you in English so you can understand,” I heard him say to them.

What!  Where was our tour guide?  Why couldn’t he do this for us too?  Bloom went and found our tour guide standing by the bus hanging out with the salami salesman.  Bloom asked him if he wouldn’t mind translating the tour for us.  In fact, he did mind.  He did not want to translate for us, but eventually Bloom convinced him.

We followed the tour guide through the winery where he pointed at things and said “this is where they store wine.”  “This is a barrel.”  Wow, this guy was really helpful.  “Now you go to that room for tastings,” he said, and pointed us to a very crowded room where people were pushing toward the front to get their wine.

Bloom and I stood in the back, and then saw the other English speakers and their guide.  “Let’s follow them,” I said loudly.  One of them turned around and heard us, and I told him we spoke English and were going to follow them.  He smiled and seemed nice about it, but all of a sudden, their small group of 5 had formed a circle, their backs towards us, clearly excluding us from their wine drinking.  Their guide handed them each a glass and told them about smelling wine, how to drink it, etc. as Bloom and I watched from outside the circle.

I looked around the room.  Everyone was talking and laughing and drinking and I was standing there feeling like a complete moron.  I was with Bloom, but everyone was ignoring us.  I felt so lonely in that room full of people, and after many days of sickness and arguing with hostels and travel plans gone awry, I was beginning to crack.  I could feel it happening and I tried to stop myself, but the tears were slowly tricking down my face.  I tried to take a deep breath and let it all go, but I couldn’t.

I imagined myself in NY.  What would I be doing today?  Maybe I would’ve gone out with some friends, and most likely Bloom and I would be having a big Shabbos dinner in honor of my birthday.  Instead I was somewhere in Northwestern Argentina, surrounded by unfriendly strangers, freezing, sick, homeless, jobless, the spiraling had begun and I couldn’t stop it.  And I’m 28.  28!  What am I doing with my life??

It was time to get back on the bus to head into the town.  I stopped the crying and got a hold of myself.  It would be worse if these people saw me breaking down.  We got to Cafayate, which was a cute enough place, and Bloom and I went to a café that had wireless so I was able to check my email on the iphone, which cheered me up.  Ok, I figured, there are people who remember me, and acknowledged my birthday and want to interact with me.  I was feeling a little better.  I ordered some of their famous wine gelato.  I had the chance to speak to my mom and Amit, and even Shani, so I was happy.  There was some beautiful scenery, and I had wine gelato, and friends in other hemispheres.  I would be ok.

We got back to Salta 10 minutes before Shabbos started.  When we arrived at the hostel they told us “no.”  It turns out they did not have a room for us.  Oh dear God, come on!  “Reservado!” We kept yelling.  After a few minutes they sent us across the street to a different hostel, which was more expensive, but did not have wifi in the room (I know I sound like a wench with this wifi obsession, but it is the only link we have with the outside world, and I miss that world), and more importantly did not have a kitchen.  They gave us our room key and we opened the door to a room with twin beds.  I went downstairs and told the man we needed “matrimonial,” which is a room with a double bed, and I explained that we had reserved that at the other hostel.  He did not speak or understand a word I said, other than matrimonial, and he kept shaking his head at me and saying no.  I started crying, again.  This seemed to freak him out, and he made a phone call and gave us a new room.

I was exhausted from all the crying and the arguing and the sadness.  Was this what long term travel was all about?  Fighting with people from different cultures?  Going from place to place only to stay in crappy cold accommodations and go on tours you can’t understand?

We took a break from our hellish week, and went to the chabad shul, where they asked Bloom to be the chazzan.  I was not looking forward to Shabbat at chabad, since our Shabbat at chabad in Cuzco had been like spending the weekend at an awkward Israeli summer camp surrounded by cliquey Israelis who, when hearing that Bloom and I were not true born Israelis, literally walked away from us and changed seats, leaving us to sit by ourselves in a room of 200 people.  I didn’t think I could take that again.

Luckily, the rabbi and his wife in Salta are awesome.  The rabbi was out of town, but his wife invited us and two other Israeli couples over to her house for dinner and for lunch the next day.  It was really nice being in a real home and eating real food.  The other Israeli couples were also friendly to us, and the wife was beyond welcoming.  A group of 4 Israeli girls also joined us later in the evening, and one of them mentioned that she was having a great week, especially since today was her birthday, and her friends bought her a fleece that said “I spent my 23rd birthday in South America” in Hebrew on it.  “Did you want me to make you a birthday fleece too?”  Bloom whispered to me.  I am 90, I thought to myself, a made to order fleece may not be appropriate anymore.  The Rabbis wife then brought out a cake for both of us, and everyone sang “Hayom yom huledet.”  I loved this woman.  Why was she so nice and awesome?  And, she was not a mashiach-ist, and gave a dvar Torah about Torah, not just Chabad.  My birthday was turning around, and I was feeling better.

Saturday and Sunday were pleasant.  Salta was growing on us, but we were still ready to move on to possibly bigger and better things.  On Sunday we had a 23 hour bus to Puerto Iguazu.  Our bus tickets were very expensive, but we had heard rumors that Argentinian busses were incredible, and that it was well worth our time and money to take the bus.


The bus arrived late.  After a few minutes of driving I realized that I was freezing.  Everyone around us was bundled up in coats and scarves, also freezing.  I felt the vents and there was cold air blasting out of them.  Really?  There was a French couple behind us who spoke Spanish, so after a few hours one of them eventually went to complain to the man sitting next to the bus driver.  The guy came back and shrugged his shoulders.  What was this??  Also, why were there no movies?  Why had this been so expensive?  In Peru we took an 11 hour bus.  It had heat, movies, food, wifi, and outlets.  Why do people brag about Argentinean busses?  This was awful and more expensive than Peru.

The French girl decided to give it a try herself and went to complain.  She came back freaking out and ranting like crazy.  I loved this girl.  She was my angry soulmate.  She knew some English and explained to me that the driver’s partner had told her that for some reason the bus didn’t pick up any of the food, or the blankets or the movies.  We would need to hold out until 3 am when we would possibly be able to find some food.

Now I went crazy too.  I decided to go talk to the guy.  I spoke in English and he angrily responded in Spanish.  The other people on the bus told me that there would be food at 8 (we had been on the bus since 3).  No, I tried to tell them, there was a rumor that there was no food at all.  Good, just what I had hoped.  The entire bus was wup in arms and freaking out.  The revolution had begun.

I sat back down and started thinking about everything over the past week.  Why was everything so difficult?  Why was everyday another fight?  It seemed like we were spending tons of money on terrible crap.  Why did it cost $25 to stay in a prison cell?  Why did it cost almost $100 to take a messed up, freezing bus?  Was this what we had saved all our money for?  Was this why I no longer had the job I worked so hard to get?  What was the meaning in all of this?

This was my real breaking point.

I thought I had broken down before, but everything just came crashing down at this point.  I had hoped that this bus would be a turning point, the end of the horrible week, but no, things were still going wrong.  I felt trapped.  Trapped on the bus, trapped in South America, trapped in travel.  I had been terrified of traveling for a year and leaving everything but Bloom behind, but I had also believed that eventually I would get the hang of it, that I would love it like everyone else, that it would change me, that it would be meaningful.

That was what hit me the most.  Where was the meaning in my life?  I was very lucky in NY.  I found my job meaningful.  It was difficult, and I was often stressed out, but I believed in what I was doing, I stood behind it, and last year was my best year of teaching, I felt like I had so much more to learn and so much more to teach, but now I was no longer teaching, and I had no idea if I would even get that job back.  I had given it up for travel, for long busses, for constant miscommunications, for being dirty, for feeling lost and homeless.  What was meaningful about this?  Who was I helping?  What was I learning?  Where was my community?  Was this a year of self-indulgence?

I cried for a while, letting myself ask all of those terrible questions, and stared out the window.  Bloom tried to cheer me up.  He read to me from my Chelsea Handler book.  He tried to make me laugh.  I should note here, that the one thing that I do appreciate and love about this year is getting to spend all of this time with Bloom, but I was still asking all of the previous questions about meaning and worth.

After a few hours and a stop at a gas station (the revolution had succeeded and we had forced the bus to stop) where I ate frozen pizzas and cheetos (my stomach needs to be pumped ASAP), I finally fell asleep.  I woke up the next morning and spent more time staring out the window and thinking.  I was feeling better.  It was then that I remembered learning that when you first start meditating you need to be aware of all of the pain that you feel.  You are supposed to embrace the pain, be aware of it, and then move on.  Only after you experience the pain and the anger, can you let it go and eventually meditate for real.

Maybe that’s what this was.  Maybe I needed to let go of everything.  I needed to allow myself to get sad and angry in order to get past it.  And maybe I also needed to get rid of all of the comforts in my life to move past them.  Maybe I needed to get rid of job security, our apartment, our possessions other than a little bit of clothes and a lot of pepto-bismol  in a backpack, in order to learn something about who I am.


I also realize that we need to organize at least two months of volunteering where I can feel like I am doing something for the world, instead of just taking.  I have also learned that I like slow travel, small towns, jungles, trekking and cafes.  Would I have known that without being in South America for almost two months?  Probably, but this is just the beginning.  I am learning to live in the moment, and overcome adversity, and for that I am proud of myself.

I know that I might sound like a whiner, but traveling long term can be hard, and these small difficulties sometimes build up and punch you in the proverbial face.  It’s also an especially difficult time for me, since I know the school year is about to begin.  Without me.  I’m scared of the unknown, and this is a fear I am being forced to face on a daily basis, so just have some ruchmanus on me, and try not to judge me too harshly.  I’m using this blog as a means for honestly conveying how I feel about this trip, and this is me, being honest.

When we got to Iguazu, it was the official end of our hell week.  Iguazu was unbelievable.  Bloom will write a post about it when we get to Buenos Aires tomorrow.  I am refusing to write anymore posts until he writes one, because I know he will describe Iguazu much better than I ever could.

And now I am about to get on a 17 hour bus to Buenos Aires.  I have no expectations, but I know that no matter what happens, it will be fine, I will make it through, and I will be ok.