Hello from Darjeeling!

  We’ve had plenty of travel, excellent food and tea, but wifi- not so much. We have been traveling in night busses, one shared taxi, and a wonderful 7-hour daytime train ride on the India Railway. Internet connections have been dicey in Myanmar and northeast India, so I have started but not finished several posts. Photos are almost impossible to load on the blog. So for now, here’s where we have been since Yangon:

Mandalay, Myanmar – 4 days

Monywa, Myanmar-3 days

Crossed border into India and went on to Imphal (Manipur state) India and stayed there 2 days

Shillong (Meghalaya state) India – 4 days

Overnighted in Gawahati (Assam state) India, then took train to (West Bengal) Siliguri, one night there then 3 hr uphill shared jeep taxi to Darjeeling where we arrived yesterday and plan to spend 4-5 days. It is beautiful and cold in the misty mountains here!

Update: we spent about a week in Darjeeling, then 1 night in Kurseong on the way down the mountains, took a 30-hr train from New Jalpaiguri to Dehli. Planning a week in northern India with friends who fly out next week, still trouble uploading pics, bye for now!

Update 7 March: we are spending a week with friends- Dehli, Agra, Jaipur. Still can’t get photos to upload!

Sleeper train from Shanghai to Kunming, China, October 2015

We took a 40-hour train ride on a K train in China! The train system is categorized by letters and K is an older, slower class but popular and affordable. If you want to learn more, seat61.com could tell you all about it but I’m here to say it worked well for us.  It felt to us like a Hogwart’s train and just as adventurous.

 Truly making friends on the train. Notice the baby’s split pants for potty training. This little guy has a diaper on, but far more frequently we saw bare bottoms for ease of toileting.

We paid about $400 for the six of us, which included two nights accommodation, such as it was.  We left from the Shanghai train station,though not the one we went to at first. There are four train stations in Shanghai, and we left from the South Shanghai Train Station. Luckily, we had given ourselves plenty of time. So though we were bummed to schlep our gear back 12 stops on the subway in the direction we had just come from, at least we wouldn’t miss the train. Here is the station:

 We went halfway across China in an 18-car train full of people- families, kids, single people. They were all traveling for the holiday. We didn’t see any other foreigners. Here are Really and Cleverly on top bunks:

 View from the ladder to my top bunk. You can see luggage storage to the top left and fold-out seats with table to lower left:

 Each passenger car had 66 bunks, eleven sections with 2 triple bunks each.  Somehow we managed to get all middle and top bunks for the six of us- not one of the desireable bottom bunks! The bottom bunks cost more and sell out first, we later learned. It was fine, we just reclined or sat at one of the fold-out window seats, of which there were two per section. I slept on a top bunk. They were narrow but comfortable enough; the kids loved it of course! This is Fiercely’s comic “bedtime” showing the twins on their bunk bed jungle gym as they annoy other passengers!

 We brought food (peanuts, apples, vacuum packed tofu)with us and bought some from sellers at stops on the way- lots of noodle bowls made with boiling water available from spigots at every car. We listened to music and what sounded like bedtime stories at night, broadcast over he train intercom, all in Chinese of course. There was the odd American song- “you are my sunshine” and something from a Disney movie- in English. The train trundled westward, stopping occasionally and shaking disturbingly at times. We amused ourselves with books, a DVD until the computer battery ran out, and looking out the window. 

  A view out the window.

The bathrooms were amusing; they emptied directly onto the tracks! Yes, they stank. Also, there was a lot of cigarette smoking, and the smoke was unavoidable due to the close quarters. But we made it to Kunming. Next post on Kunming, China!

Short update 10/3/2015

We made it through our first week post-cruise! Wifi is sketchy so uploading pics is slow, no posts ready at the moment. Also, it is true that Facebook, Twitter, and Google are blocked here so I can’t access my gmail.  

We spent 4 nights in Suzhou, then 2 nights in Shanghai. In a few hours, we get on a 40-hr (!!)train ride from Shanghai to Kunming in south central China. From there, we will get ready to go to Laos and hopefully we will have better wifi. 

Burning Chicken X, August 2015

The egg came first this time! We built a chicken inside of an egg for our annual camping party

 The tenth anniversary was bittersweet, filled with stellar people, transcendent moments, and reluctant goodbyes. We don’t know when Burning Chicken XI will be. We had a great time camping and building a giant creature in the meantime, though!!

Mr. Fantastic made a maze in the tall grass, as he usually does, but this year he also cut some grass for an archery range. Then there were clay pigeon shooting, swimming at the pond, fire juggling, a harpist playing, and general merriment.

Here’s the flaming fowl and a beautiful evening sky:


That’s all for now. We are working on getting transportation to Vancouver since our car is dead. I’m working a few more days in the meantime and I’ll post more details as they emerge!

Limbo, August 2015

We haven’t left yet, as my co-workers keep reminding me. Our house was rented out the beginning of the month  so we are staying elsewhere. We were at Pennsic for a week, then six days at a friend’s house who was away, now the kids + Mr. Fantastic are trying to get to the cabin (more on that later) and I’m alone for six days house-sitting in south philly. 

I’m pretty sure I just confused those older Chinese-looking ladies in the park with my attempts at mandarin. I’m trying to learn a little mandarin and do some travel planning before I work my final two days at my job and go to the cabin for Burning Chicken 10, which is also like our going-away party. Except we can’t leave from there because we have some loan paperwork that needs to be done first. Also, there is the matter of the car.

We have always faced the fact that our overworked Dodge Caravan may not be up for the cross-country trip. We have backup plans of renting a car, taking the bus or train, even buying a car and reselling it on the west coast somewhere. And it appears we may have to enact those plans sooner than we had hoped; the car has broken down. 

It happened yesterday while the Fantastics, minus yours truly of course, we’re heading north to the cabin. Mr. Fantastic texted the grim matter to me and stayed in a hotel with the kids, who probably loved it. So now I find myself comparing various ways across this vast country for the six of us. What will we do? Stay tuned!

Some notes from frantic research:

Rental car to Ohio, bus to Chicago, train to San Francisco, rental car to Seattle, bus to Vancouver:

$400 for a two-day rental car to my parents’ place, then Megabus from Cleveland to Chicago (6.5 hrs) is $32ppx6=$192. Then there is the Zephyr train to San Francisco (50 hrs) for $164-$321pp, probably at the higher end since it is tourist season, but also discount for kids, so $984-$1284 total. And no driving! Then car rental again to get us to Vancouver. A week for a one-way minivan from San Fran to Vancouver is difficult; looks like you go to Seattle then take a bus. A week of car rental one way from San Francisco to Seattle looks to be $1000. Bus is about $20 for the 4-hour ride, train is $45, also 4 hours. What is the grand total for transport? About $3100, not including gas and food and lodging. We were hoping for about $1000 less than that including gas, room, and board in our car, as I had calculated in a previous post. Bummer. But I do get kind of psyched about the big train ride!

Skipping San Francisco may make things easier:

I don’t really want to, but maybe we should. Same trip to Chicago and then Amtrak to Vancouver. The train is $985-$1400. Depends on which train, transfers etc. but not bad. It’s only 50 hours, so that means more lodging costs and no camping gear. 

Train to San Fran then fly to Vancouver?

San Francisco to Vancouver flight looks like $150. So $600, not bad compared to car but I really want to see a friend in Portland. Drive San Fran to Portland w/ 2 day car rental =$400. Just a 10-hr drive so maybe 1 day car rental=$200. Why is it $200/day for a car?!? Drop fees, which seem standard for one way rentals, are killing me!

11 days one way car rental from philly to Seattle is $1800. That may be the way to go. I guess renting longer is less per day, only 1 drop fee. Also, we can take all the luggage we can fit and we can camp along the way. 


Cleveland to San Francisco for us $1400 per cheapo air

Chicago to San Francisco for us $768
No idea how this will turn out, but we have a lot of options!

Maryland & Virginia & West Virginia Part 3

RW and I had made the highly questionable decision to bike in the rain.  Both Wonderful parents and two of their kids, along with Fiercely and Cleverly, decided to come along.  Mr. Fantastic was interested in bringing non-bikers to the Udvar-Hazy Center, a part of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum consisting of airplane hangars housing historic aircraft.  That quickly, the plan was made.
First, though, came breakfast!  We had checked out the Desert Rose Cafe the day before and decided to have breakfast there.  We had also discussed ordering bagged lunches from there.  Two great decisions! We biked to the cafe in the rain, had a cozy breakfast with all 12 of us, bought a couple of rain ponchos then split into our two groups. 

  Off we went back to the towpath. It was pouring rain nonstop, just as everyone said it would. The mud puddles were profound and unavoidable. I could not take pictures because there was so much rain. For about six hours we biked like this. Part of the path was a beautiful esplanade next to the river where the canal boats used to actually be in the river. I wish I had a photo, but, you know, rain. At one point we stopped and ate our sandwiches in the rain. Cleverly decided to bail out after about an hour (Mr. Fantastic was our support vehicle if we needed one) but then rallied and finished with us.

There were few bikers on the path. I noticed those in front of me had large mud splashes up their backs and after awhile it dawned on me that I probably did too. We all had mud caked on the inner sides of our legs and shoes. About an hour or two from our destination, the rain let up and we drip-dried a little. It was still cloudy. I thought again of the canal boats and how the workers would work in any weather until the canal froze.  We eventually came up to a bridge and into the historic town of Harpers Ferry.

We met up with the rest of our group, who had indeed gone to the airplane museum. We drove to get supplies and then to the Wonderful family’s cabin. This became another adventure since the steep gravel driveway proved too much for our car. We loaded our things into the Wonderfuls’ car and walked the short stretch to the cabin.

Above: our car trying and failing to get up the steep stretch of driveway. We ended up parking by the yellow car.

The cabin was beautiful and had all the modern comforts like running water and electricity. We all took showers, had dinner and went to bed. 

Day 7

We woke up in the cabin and had a great breakfast. Then we spent the day exploring the place. The Wonderfuls have a share in a cabin that is part of a larger Washington, DC-based spiritual group. The group has over 1,000 acres of hilly, forested land through which passes the Appalacian Trail. There is a pond, several hiking trails, and a number of buildings, including retreat center facilities.  We enjoyed hiking, playing the many board games there and a few we brought, and generally exploring the area. 



 Day 8

We headed back home today. First we went back to Harper’s Ferry where we had left a few bikes. It looked so nice in the sunshine!

And then it was time to drive home. It had been such a splendiferous trip! I loved it all- the history, the food, the biking in sunshine and in the rain. The kids had done great, and now most of us have biked most of the way between Pittsburgh to Washington DC. Not all at once, but this trip was 120 miles, and three years ago we did about 75 miles.

A postscript

One of our group, thankfully only one, unfortunately contracted Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever on this trip. It is a tick-borne disease and landed this person in the ICU and on some serious antibiotics. It is clear that taking precautions against insect bites of all kinds is wise when you are camping and hiking in the woods like this. We all had numerous bites on various body parts and luckily the ER staff identified the likely cause of our friend’s symptoms and prescribed the correct treatment. All is well as of this writing thank goodness!!!

Bike camp trips with kids

Delaware Water Gap June 2013

Delaware Water Gap June 2013

I wanted to record distilled advice for anyone crazy enough to do these kinds of trips. After seven trips in eight years with a group of 12- two families with four kids each, the youngest kids being two years old on the first trip and the oldest being 15 on the most recent trip- here is what has worked well (in no particular order):


Poppa with Cleverly on a tagalong

1) Find bike paths. They have no cars and it makes the biking so peaceful. The kids can bike ahead and have a little independence. We like the Schuylkill River Bike Trail, the Greater Allegheny Passage, the C&O Canal bike trail, and any Rails to Trails we can find!
2) While riding, meet up every three miles or so. We found this to be a good way to allow some independence but keep the group from getting too dispersed.  It is also excellent to help be aware of tantrums, mechanical problems, berry patches, interesting scenery, changing plans, anything that could affect the trip.

3) Don’t worry about having the best gear. One family slowly added lightweight tents, panniers, etc over the years and that is a great way to do it. That said, not having these things should not prevent an enjoyable trip. Neither family has specialized bikes, for example.  Enthusiasm for the trip is more important than gear!
4) Consider tag-along bikes and trailers for younger riders. The trailers are great for hauling gear when the kids can bike more on their own. For a couple of years we had the twins take turns riding on a bike then resting in the trailer. When they both were too tired, they could both rest and we fastened the bike to the top of the trailer with a bungee cord. The trailers, even inexpensive and used ones, can take a lot of abuse and still remain functional.

5) Vary the schedule. Take a day or two to see local sights and do less biking. Spend a night at a hotel rather than camping every night. Go to a restaurant for lunch. It isn’t the cheapest way to go, but it improves morale and gives variety to the trip.                             6) Make plans, but allow for spontaneity. True of any trip. Figure out how far you want to bike and how you willl break it up, but don’t make too many commitments to this schedule (like hotel reservations, etc.).You will find unexpected things!  See the sights along the way, but look for other distractions.  We have stalled the troops for wildflowers, snakes, creek walking, berry picking, interesting rock formations, etc. Similarly, we have cut out some plans when weather or fatigue have interfered.                                                                                                                                       7) Share things! We organize group meals since it is easier to cook one big breakfast than two or more. The non-cooking adults get a nice break.  We also take turns riding with/encouraging the slowest riders.  Sometimes mixing it up helps everyone’s mood on an 8-hour day of biking.  Sharing other things, like camp stoves and repair tools, literally lightens the load with economy of scale, which you will appreciate as you pedal uphill.


Those were some of my thoughts as I biked along on our latest trip, which may have been the best yet!  Watch for posts coming soon!

Washington, DC, May 2015

We pretended we were somewhere in Southeast Asia. We lugged our bags to the Chinatown bus, took the only remaining seats for 5 which were near the smelly toilet, rode for 3 hours (Cleverly became a de facto doorperson for the loo – “someone’s in there”), and then walked with luggage 1.8 miles across Washington to LW’s place in 90º weather, hooray for us! A few days later we walked back the same way, and it was raining.  We were right near the Capitol, passing crowds of well-dressed, cellphone-tethered professionals whom I’m sure are Very Important.  We were four sweaty minors and myself, all somewhat disheveled and getting ready for a year of international wandering.  We drew stares and some slight smiles from the busy people, who I envied not at all.

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riding the suitcase at the bus station, schlepping around DC

The last time we were in DC, it snowed profusely.  This time, it was hot and muggy. Both times, we were hosted by the intrepid LW, my friend from the Peace Corps and a current Foreign Service Officer who is heading for Haiti in a few months.  We took over her apartment, sightsaw, watched movies, and ate with abandon!

Walking around DC

So many flowers blooming!  Especially roses. The twins were vultures at a playground. The architecture was charming.

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The National Zoo

I had never been here before.  It was smaller than I’d imagined, with a surprisingly nice elephant area that you can walk over on a bridge.  It was a Saturday and extremely crowded.  We went with LW and a Pakastani-French-American family, so there were three languages going on -English, Pashto, and French- in our group at any given time.  We loved the flamingos, the water sprays for cooling off, and the reptile house (even though we briefly lost a kid there!).

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Georgetown boat ride

Who knew you could go on a boat tour on the Potomac from a dock in Georgetown?  LW did, and so we went.  We on the Nightingale II went with this company, though we saw a pirate boat tour and a giant spaceship-looking boat as well.  It was nice to see the statues, the bridges, the planes heading to Dulles, even the Washington Monument from the river.

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Here are the other tour boats we saw: the red pirate one and the big spaceship one.

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Georgetown itself was nice, with a healthy commercial district going on:

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Later, we ate here, since LW and I met in Honduras and we miss the food!!!  Technically, the food was not Honduran but El Salvador is darn close, shares a border even, and we did have tamarind juice, fried platano, and some delicious pupusas.


We also ate again at the brunch paradise, Bread and Chocolate, amazing food and a beautiful day to eat outside!  There’s LW in a rare pic!


And back to Chinatown

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I’m not sure why I don’t have many pics of LW, but here is Lincoln in Cleverly’s hat!!  Thanks, guys!  Maybe see you in Haiti next time!!