Note: We are currently in Kuala Lumpur, and will be in Malaysia for the next 2.5 months, mostly in Penang.
Welcome to 2020! If the first few weeks of this new decade are anything to go by, this year will be an interesting one as politicians, Brexit, and members of the royal family vie for the headlines in the UK, nothing new happens in the USA and yet news reporters think a 400th report on impeachment is worthwhile, the coronavirus looms large, and we struggle to keep up with what’s happening in the actual places we are (Cambodia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Malaysia in the last month!). 2020 promises to be an interesting and exciting one for us as well, more on that below.
2019 was characterised for us as being a year of slow-travel, e-commerce and family – with both heartache and heritage on the family front. We visited ten countries, three of which were new to us, and returned to South and Southeast Asia. Our luggage dropped in weight from 53 to 47kg (who needs that skirt or those shoes?!) and on average we spent 5 weeks per country ….showing how averages mean nothing as that includes only five days in Czechia with Tiggy, Vien’s older sister, and four months in Occitanie in SW France.
A very negative low: my parents’ suffered a house fire in February that saw our cherished family home of the past 45 years turned to a blackened vestige in a matter of minutes, and the ensuing months saw them regroup and begin the challenge of demolition and re-building.
A very positive high: we visited Vientiane, Laos, Vien’s namesake and a cornerstone of Vientiene’s family history and heritage, filling a space we hadn’t known was empty. More on that momentous occasion below.
In our professional lives, we at long last launched our online tea shop MatchaAlternatives.com. So far we have experienced our first proper Black Friday to Christmas period, with happy-making four-figure revenue in the first two months, dealt with waves of bot attacks, and felt the wonder of making people’s lives better with tea (as well as enjoying our own delicious tea wherever we were). Wish us luck! We continued to grow Radiant Travel as well despite our attention being on the tea business, sales came in during the run up to Christmas and Vien's photography Instagram feed growing to nearly 2000 followers. Booyah!
Lastly, 2019 saw us start developing plans and major changes for the next phase of our lives, which is adding a new level of excitement to daily life. [Cue suspenseful music until the end of this blog]
2018 saw us travelling fast across 15 countries, spending a few days to a couple weeks per country and seeing a lot, sating a frustrated travel bug that was consuming us at the end of our year in India (see our Living in Kerala series) but also tiring us in the process. This led to almost six months in France housesitting: looking after our cottage, a small chateau, two ever-hungry black labs and a full 150 acres of hay and sunflower fields, plus riding in the surrounding vineyards. It was in the deep countryside in the Gers region, with the nearest town with a supermarket a solid twenty-minute drive away (the least populated area of France!). We loved it.
After our sit, we spent a week in Prague with my artistic sister-in-law, meaning that we visited the museums, art galleries and churches that we often miss in exchange for tea. She is a good influence on us!
Prague’s very centre is touristy as one might expect, and yet somehow keeps its charm and Bohemian cafes. Beer and fork-tender pork are predominant, with vast portions of both. The surrounding neighbourhoods are blockier with Brutalist tendencies, and everything is guarded by one of the world’s largest castles that sprawls across the top of a hill above the city. So large that we spent two days just exploring the castle and its cathedrals, as well as their Easter market with a blacksmith, funnel cakes and green beer. Thank you Tigris for such a wonderful trip!
After a stop in the UK swapping out winter clothes for summer we then flew to the US for a month, for my niece’s graduation from my own alma mata Mount Holyoke College, and to visit my parents. May in Vermont is a season of change: each dawn there are new buds, new leaves, suddenly blossoms, then BAM summer has arrived. At the start of our visit, my father and I wandered along a stream and marvelled at the delicate fiddleheads and frog eggs while bundled up in scarves and coats. By the time we left a month later, the stream was cloaked entirely by Jurassic ferns and the bullfrogs dominated the twilight and we were all in shorts.
This beauty was, however, over-shadowed by the demolition of our family home and stress of beginning a new build. This included significant blasting, which we got to experience first-hand. During our month it went from a sad square of soil to blasted mountains of schist, to sleek foundations, to the beginnings of a frame. A surreal experience, watching a once-familiar place go through an absolute transformation. Whatever pain I felt was multiplied a thousand times for my parents, as they had to cope with the trauma of escaping the fire and losing their home, while designing a new house and beginning the build, while also finding a new temporary home and learning the ropes of insurance claims. There is a happy ending, though - they move into their new home in a few short days, less than a year after the fire.
In the middle of this, we took the opportunity to “pop” down to New Orleans, Louisiana and Bay St Louis, Mississippi courtesy of an in incredible joint gift from my eldest sister and family friends who lives in NOLA. Here the end of May/start of June is the tipping point between a bit too cool and a way too hot. Ideal for cool mornings writing in the screened porch, and especially cosy during the frequent downpours. In homage to The Waterboy, we took a fan boat to see ‘gators, and you can read about that here.
During that stopover in the UK, prior to the US, I applied for my Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) in London. This is like a life-long permanent residency visa. It is hedging our bets and ensuring opportunity: it allows us at any time in the future live or start a business in India, a country who's growth will exceed that of China's over the next decade.
After regretfully departing the blue skies and green hills of Vermont in June, we arrived in Wales to discover…blue skies, green hills and the added bonus of endless pink foxgloves. After visits with all UK family we started wait for my OCI to arrive in the post, adding a zest of uncertainty as we didn’t know if it would arrive that very day, or in two weeks and so couldn’t plan. When it did arrive, we tipped the first domino and after an energetic five days in London to see a new anime exhibit at the Museum of London, again with my sister-in-law (see?!), we headed east.
We are both political economists at heart, and apart from our too-brief visits to Slovakia and Czechia this was our first time behind the Iron Curtain, in Sofia. You can read our full account of our visit to Sofia with Vien’s younger sister and her partner here.
With the largest Muslim minority in Europe, Bulgaria was also picked as having the cheapest flights to Kochi, Kerala (one of the few areas of India with significant Muslim minorities). This was a six week trip, planned to visit family and enjoy the tail-end of the monsoon season. Our planned visit the year before had been cancelled due to record-breaking floods, and so it had been 18 months since we left at the end of our year there. Stepping out of the airport at 2am and smelling the incense and humidity of Kerala brought us back with a rush, and it suddenly felt like we were home. We unpacked the suitcases we had stored with Vien's aunt and grandmother, joyfully rediscovering our teapot and bright pink tablecloth. When we had left in March 2018, our family had just begun to settle into their new flat, and this visit we could settle back and enjoy their new home without any need to refuse a second or third cup of tea due to busyness. Our head wobbles returned unbidden, as did our few Malayali words.
The inadvertent theme of this visit was the discovery of Vien's torn ACL and torn meniscus - with thanks to a 3-year-old Marwari stallion named Sultan back in 2018. Sultan had decided that it was a useful shortcut to basically walk through a palm tree to get to the other side, no matter the position of Vien's right knee. Due to an on-and-off recovery and some other unrelated strains to the same knee later on, the injury was misdiagnosed by a French GP, a physiotherapist and of course, us!
In the end it took us a looong time to connect the injury to the cause - a ride that was actually in Kerala too, but almost a year and a half previous. This necessitated many visits to the hospital and an MRI, unplanned "medical tourism", a new experience for us. Getting an MRI (same GE machines they use in the UK or USA) for US$60 with 1 day's notice was a highlight. This sort of injury does not really 'heal' but with a lot of tiring daily physical therapy life is returning to normal, and fingers crossed that no surgery is eventually required.
On to the outskirts of Nong Khai, Thailand, for a month in a teak house on the Mekong to focus focus focus on MatchaAlternatives.com our US-based tea shop. We slipped into a dreamlike rhythm of baking hot days and steamy nights, biking up the river to one of the local restaurants for two out of three meals a day, then returning to our MA Launch: To Do gdoc. This was far cheaper than groceries, with our daily expenditure on food for the two of us on average £5 ($6.60). By comparison, each visit to the Tesco-Lotus supermarket ended up setting us back around £50 for what felt like two tomatoes and a box of milk. We also connected with our Airbnb host, Richard, who has become a firm friend and someone we would travel back to Asia to visit. As a side note, if any of our readers want an idyllic stay in Thailand, we’ll gladly put you in touch with him or send the link. There are not many Airbnbs in the world like his!
In mid-October we packed up and began the physically small but emotionally large journey across the Mekong, out of Thailand, and into Laos. We took the 20-minute train from Nong Khai, our passage stopping traffic as the little locomotive hummed across the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge. The same river Vien’s grandparents, aunt, uncle and father had crossed nearly sixty years prior. Halfway across the flags changed from Thai to Lao, and the billboards had their messages in Laotian and Chinese. The side of the road also changed, and is one of the rare places in the world where drivers have to switch from driving on the left to the right at a land border....with the aid of some traffic lights and careful road markings!
At the train station, we learned that our e-visas couldn’t be processed in the train station with everyone else, but we were welcome to enter Laos (without a stamp) and take a taxi to the main immigration office a few km away (to get a stamp). I can’t quite imagine an American immigration official being so trusting, and this was emblematic of the friendly, welcoming attitude we encountered during our three week visit. At the main terminal, we were clearly not the first tourists who had done this, and were allowed to technically leave Laos by walking around the back of the building so we could "arrive" again. And with that, we had arrived, again.
Vientiane is Laos’ capital city, but given the entire country is a bit off the tourist trail the city has a laid-back atmosphere and a small city centre that can be explored in an hour or two. Vien’s grandfather Dr Heshmat Ta’eed moved to Vientiane in 1955 as a Pioneer of the Baha’i religion, and officially opened the country to the Faith in 1957. He was eventually able to bring Vien’s grandmother Nosrat and their two children from Iran to Laos, he working as a doctor and together founding a language school. They worked with the government to open the country’s first Baha’i centre, achieve government recognition and spread the Faith’s guiding principle of unity.
In 1960, Vien’s father was born in Vientiane, straight into the chaos and horrors of the Laotian Civil War and the Vietnam War. The Laotian war is also called the 'secret war'...why is that? Did you know Laos is the most bombed country in the world? No? Thank the CIA for that as they ran the war as a covert operation (P.S. this is official, declassified US government information not a conspiracy theory). The family was separated, and Vien’s grandparents and his father (as a baby) were very nearly executed before they managed to evacuate. The joy of opening a new country to the Faith coupled with the atrocities and near-misses of war have left an indelible imprint on the Ta’eeds; it was a privilege to retrace their footsteps and meet the thriving Baha’i community who all knew of Dr Ta’eed.
On a lighter note, it also never got old seeing the look of confusion and then delight when Vientiene introduced himself. "Vientiene, as in...here?" YES!
The Wikipedia page on the Baha'i Faith in Laos is here.
At the end of our ~three week visit we reluctantly packed and bid farewell to Laos, dreaming of a return visit. Our flight down to Phnom Penh was only an hour, but once there no one had heard of Vientiane and the sleepy welcome of Laos was trampled in the dust by motorbikes, Range Rovers, Landcruisers, Mercedes S-Classes and Ford Rangers (see below). That 2-month visit is a story for another blog post, as this write-up is getting quite long already!
After an autumn of significant focus, we then switched off entirely for Christmas and New Year’s in Manila, catching up with various Philippine friends living there or home for the holidays, and marvelling at how much Manila reminded us of US cities, even down to the billboards, signs, and chains. We also found it interesting noticing the Spanish words mixed in with the Filipino language (a standardised version of Tagalog, one of the 120-187 languages spoken in the Philippines). Manila was a new type of international - not like KL where people of all ethnicities live, but a city where dozens of cultures have been brought back from the huge Philippine diaspora.
Our New Year's Eve in Manila was at a proper Gala / Spectacular courtesy of my parents (!), which was a wild enough experience in one night to warrant its own post. Sorry, you'll just have to wait...
We left at the start of 2020, and a week later the Taal Volcano began erupting and shut down Manila’s airport. That was too close for comfort…and literally the exact reason we decided to only spend 2 weeks there rather than the full month the visa allowed, to mitigate the risk of a natural disaster in this, the second most disaster prone capital city on Earth! (If you're curious, Tokyo takes the number one spot.)
COMING UP IN 2020...
[suspenseful music grows to crescendo]
After two years in Madrid, and 30+ unique countries over soon-to-be four years of nomadic travel, we are putting down roots once again: in... Portugal!
Our six months in France confirmed our existing thoughts, that one day we wanted country life, that we want horses again, and that we want our own Imperial Blue Denby teapot again. It’s also our 10th wedding anniversary this year, so what better way to celebrate than starting the next chapter of our lives? Our new Portuguese home will be our base for the foreseeable future, so that even when we head out on the road again we’ll have a place to return to. Right now we are planning on moving to the Alentejo region, but on the ground research will start from May to finally confirm it. But first, Penang, Australia and Greece :-)
If you have any knowledge of Portugal and any advice, we are in the voracious research stage and will gratefully receive any tips!
So: thank you for being such loyal readers and happy 2020! As always, may the coming year bring everything you desire and everything you need – which of course may or may not be the same thing.
And with that…
Happy New Decade from Travelling for Tea!
Elizabeth & Vientiene
P.S. To read about another type of 2019 review: our year through the lens of tea, check out my recent post on the Matcha Alternatives' Blog: Ten Ways to Drink Tea (our year of tea drinking) :-)