Swiss Family Reunion

“I want to see mountains again Gandalf, mountains!”

-Bilbo Baggins

If there is a polar opposite country to Thailand, it might just be Switzerland. Our first 5 minutes on the streets of Zurich were culture shock to say the least. It was best exemplified when we tried to cross the street the first time. We stood at a crosswalk on a relatively calm street when a Mercedes came speeding our way. We patiently waited for it to pass and were taken aback when the car abruptly stopped and waited for us to cross the crosswalk. Coming from nearly 6 months in Thailand, where crossing the street is up there on the danger meter with skydiving or the luge, we realized we were no longer in the land with no rules.

It might seem a bit strange that we decided to leave Thailand after the last post, as we were so happy. The circumstances for this trip were special though. Lauren’s family had planned a trip to Switzerland for vacation for their first trip outside the US. We agreed to meet them and decided since we were flying that far, we might as well get our plane ticket’s worth and stay in Europe for a few months.

We left Koh Tao kicking and screaming albeit excited to see family.  We had a wonderful sendoff and are looking forward to going back to the island in the fall. The turnout at Goodtime for our impromptu going away sunset was humbling as all of our friends gathered to send us off. We grabbed some dinner and then hit up the Beer Mason’s for some craft brews with those still standing. We said our goodbyes and woke up the next day to catch our ferry to Koh Samui.

Koh Tao means “Turtle Island” and describes not just the sea life, but also the pace of life for the people on land. After being used to this slow pace of a 13 sq. km island for so long, Koh Samui traffic was a circus! We rode the bikes from the pier to the hotel near the airport and then the scavenger hunt began. The packing tape had been no problem, but three bicycle sized cardboard boxes and bubble wrap were not easy things to track down at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon in Koh Samui! We rented a scooter and spent two days rounding up the necessary supplies. The island itself was a tourist trap to say the least so we were not sad to leave. We had trouble at the airport terminal when Lauren’s name was paged and we had to hitch a ride to the baggage terminal because you can not fly with power bank batteries in your checked luggage. We politely fished them out of our bags. As I plucked the third one out, I caught a glimpse of our fuel canister which most definitely was still at least half full of gasoline. It made it through security with no problem!

The flight to Bangkok was pleasant with fish and rice for breakfast on the plane. We transferred to Swiss air in Bangkok and had a lovely flight to Zurich. We finally watched “The Last Jedi”, relaxed and slept. As we flew over a part of the world full of so much turmoil, I couldn’t help but think about how good it felt to be on our way to see family and explore this amazing planet some more.

Which brings us back to Zurich. We landed and took a 30 minute cab from the airport to our hotel for the cost of 3 days living expenses in Thailand. Lauren cooked a delicious pork chop dinner, we assembled the bikes and set off on our journey into the alps. The first day was gorgeous. We got out of town and into the hills and were treated to beautiful deciduous trees, lovely weather and secluded roads. We pulled off on a path and set up our tent for a great night’s sleep.

Seriously… WTF?

The next day we awoke to freezing cold rain and snails everywhere along with the realization that we were not prepared for May in Switzerland. We literally had no pants! We froze our asses off the next day wet and cold and had a challenging day of constant climbs with little respite. At the end of the day, we were exhausted and had to resort to getting a hotel despite it being way out of our budget because we were soaked to the bone.

The next day we found a thrift store, bought some pants and more appropriate cold weather gear and continued on our way. Unfortunately the weather didn’t improve much for the next week and a half, but we made the best of it.

Switzerland is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in the world. The scenery is spectacular. After the second day, we literally ran out of adjectives to describe our surroundings. Also, it is one of the most bicycle friendly places we’ve ever seen. Everyone rides bicycles so the tiny cars are very courteous to cyclists.

As we progressed, I kept joking that Switzerland was the land of rules… and for some unknown reason, everyone there actually follows them… All of them! One of my big issues in the military was having to follow rules that I deemed stupid so this obviously presented a slight problem for me. I coped with little rebellions like jumping curbs and blasting through roundabouts the wrong way when no one was around just to make myself feel better. I was constantly humming “Signs” by Tesla because there were signs everywhere telling you what to do. Fortunately or unfortunately we couldn’t read them. Also, the people didn’t seem quite as welcoming to visitors as we had hoped. We ran into more than a few servers who scoffed when they found out we didn’t speak Swiss German. We learned basic phrases but it was not enough to please some people. 

Some signs made us happy!

On the other hand, we met some fabulous individuals who showed us so much kindness it offset the bad apples. One afternoon we were fumbling around a village trying to find some information about a yodeling concert that was supposed to be that night. We got a lot of weird looks until a nice young man yelled across the road and asked if we needed help. He and his friends invited us to have a beer with them in the yard and we chatted about our trip and their lives in Switzerland. It was funny to hear them mildly complaining about their government in a seemingly perfect country with no litter, where everyone dives either a bicycle or a brand new car.  We thanked them for their hospitality and ended up skipping the yodeling concert because the crowd was dressed in suits and ties. We pressed on and found camping for the night at the nicest (and most expensive) campgrounds we had ever seen.

Things continued this way as we made our way south towards Murren. At one point, my poor route planning left us on a trail we thought was for bikes but it ended up being a challenging hiking path. It turned out to be a pilgrimage path with stations of the cross every few hundred meters. The terrain was steep and at one point as Lauren was struggling to lift her bike up onto a ledge on the path, a kind old woman in her 70’s appeared out of nowhere and started giving her a push. It was a hilarious scene and we laughed as we thanked her profusely in broken German. A few minutes later the path turned rough again and another even older gentleman came by and did the same. Towards the top of the path, we found a ledger for those making the pilgrimage and signed our names with pride.

We made it over pass after pass and continued on, subsiding on Baguette, Salami, Rugen Brau beer and swiss mountain cheese. If it hasn’t become apparent yet, Switzerland is really expensive and our budget was stretched pretty thin.

How much you wanna make a bet i can throw a football over them mountains?
Never did see the bird, but apparently this is good luck.

We finally arrived in Interlaken which is a beautiful city placed between two gorgeous lakes… Get it? Interlaken? They also had the only other incline train I’d ever seen outside of Pittsburgh. We were lucky enough to have a response on warmshowers and our host Matthius was very kind. We waited for him in the park drinking wine and watching paragliders landing. He met us at a cycling cafe after work and rode with us to his village a few miles away. We were treated to a much needed shower and some lovely meats and cheeses. The later of which was from his family’s cow! We shared stories of traveling and looked at maps of the world together talking about the places we’ve lived, visited and wanted to see. At the end of the night, he brought out a book with his villiage’s history dating back to the middle ages. It was complete with family sigils and drawings of the old farming methods used in the mountains. He explained his families sigil to us and pointed out that the star in the corner meant that someone in the family had been a knight. He said the remnants of the castle on the nearby hill were still standing. It was an amazing evening and reinforced that the best part of traveling is interacting with the local people. We forgot to get a picture together but we did get a few in his awesome hundred year old house.

Somehow we always manage to match…  Nerds!

We left Interlaken and still had a day to kill before Lauren’s family arrived in Murren. We rode through a beautiful valley to Lauderbrunnen where we froze huddled under a bike parking area outside of a convenience store for a few hours. We debated riding up the mountain in the sleet but instead stopped at a bar which happened to have a hotel upstairs. The next day, we elected to take a cable car instead of climbing the mountain in the freezing rain. We arrived in Murren and while it was incredibly touristy, we enjoyed riding through the streets on our way towards our lovely camping spot. We set up shop in a shack on the side of the road and slept soundly although a bit cold. The next day, we killed time drinking beer and wine on a bench and playing gin rummy waiting for her family’s train to arrive. When they did, we upgraded from a pathside shack with three walls to a beautiful Swiss Chalet for 7 days. It was a welcome change to have hot water and warm food.

Saw a sticker from Catalina brewing in Tucson

We spent the week with Lauren’s family checking out the local tourist attractions and playing Settlers of Catan and other board games at night. I tried going mountain biking one afternoon, but the trail was downhill Redbull style so I ended up walking down most of it. We ate well and had good company although the time was too short. Before we knew it, they were off on their way back to America and we were heading south for Warmer Climes and all the Wines in Italy!

So, I guess we kinda live here now.

“Some people never find it. Some only pretend. But I just want to live happily ever after, now and then.” – Jimmy Buffett

The plan was to stop on Koh Tao (a very small island in the Gulf of Thailand) for a week or two. We were going to try scuba diving, enjoy the beach, then get back on the road heading North for Chiang Mai. That did not happen.

Instead, our week or two is now at about six and we don’t have any plans for leaving any time soon. When we started the trip we always talked about scouting out places we really liked for when we wanted to take a break from traveling for a few months. We didn’t think we would end up staying on an island and training for new careers… sort of.

The first two weeks here were great. The weather was beautiful and the beach was fantastic. We swam and enjoyed all the Western and Thai food on the island. I got my open water scuba certification and we were just hanging out with no cares. We stayed up late, woke up whenever we wanted and generally relaxed. Lauren got food poisoning which was not fun at all, and the weather turned bad for about 5 days due to the remnants of a typhoon, but we were really enjoying it here. Our Visas were going to expire and we debated on what to do.

We considered a standard boat/van visa run to leave the country then come right back or maybe taking a boat to the mainland and riding the bikes to Burma and back. We thought about riding to Burma then just continuing up the Eastern coast. Finally we thought about just heading up to Cambodia. We debated for days and ultimately decided to just do a visa run and stay on the island.

We had an interesting mini-adventure for the visa run. We took the night ferry from Koh Tao to Chumpon and slept in bunks on the boat.

We arrived bright and early on a seemingly abandoned port at 5:30 AM and looked around confused. We waited with the other westerners and eventually a guy in a van showed up and started coralling us around. We ended up in a van, then switched to another van, then finally got on the road. What a road it was! The drive took us up and over the mountains toward Ranong. It was the same highway we had so desparately avoided on the bikes on the way down. Being in a car in and of itself was novel and the driver was downright insane. The road was a series of windy blind curves for miles. We spent at least 30% of the time on the wrong side of the road. Basically, there are lines painted on the road in Thailand, but they are purely for decoration. The other side of the road and both shoulders are all fair game. Passing on a blind curve just requires a simple toot of the horn and off you go.

It was about a two or three hour trip before we arrived at Ranong. We were shuffled to a place that copied our passports then stood in line to get exit stamps. We jumped on a boat that could only be boarded with crisp new ten dollar bills from the US for some reason.

The boat was a traditional longtail and we thought we had made it to Burma after a short trip. It turned out, this was the immigration checkpoint #1 of 3. The next thing we knew they were handing us life jackets as we laughed until we realized why. We had to cross a big gap of no-shit ocean to get to Burma. The boat was maybe 25 feet long and the waves were not small. We were splashed and rocked around for 40 minutes as we crossed the sea to Burma. “You may know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”

We spent a grand total of 20 minutes getting our passports stamped, then immediately left to come back to Thailand. The return journey was just as fun and re-entering was pretty easy. One gal in our group had a bit of trouble, she had done this several times before and the immigration officials basically told her she couldn’t come back into Thailand. Our guide stepped up and had some words with them and somehow it was magically resolved in ten minutes. +1 for booking through an agency and not trying to do it yourself. On the ride back, we got to know Cecilia from Argentina and had wonderful conversation about the island, diving, travelling and life in general. After the van ride for some reason we stopped to swap vehicles again and another gal in our group became beligerant. “If she missed the ferry, she was going to flip her shit!” she informed everyone over and over. We, along with Cecilia thought it was amusing and were glad that “shit flipper” ended up in a different van for the remainder of the trip. During the last leg which was a high speed chase to catch the ferry that involved dropping off a random Thai lady at a restaurant we chatted about how nice it feels to leave emotions like that behind. I proclaimed that if we missed the ferry the first round was on me and I knew a great seafood place at the pier. We laughed and decided we didn’t really care if we made it or not.

As luck would have it we showed up a few minutes late and they hadn’t even started boarding. That didn’t stop old shit flipper from cutting the line and ensuring she was among the first to be on the ferry so she could wait 30 minutes for everyone else to board. The whole thing was a great lesson in how far attitude can get you in life. Here is one person who is worried so much about something she has absolutely no control over. Additionally, the worst case scenario was that we miss a boat and take the next one. She was worried sick, embarassing herselft as she acted like an asshole. She was verbally abusive to the driver who was just doing his job and stressing out about missing a fricken boat! So much for the island attitude! On the other hand, Cecilia, Lauren, and I, took the oportunity to make new friends. We shared stories about how we might have reacted similarly in our previous lives, but have since learned that most of the time, it’s not worth it to get upset. The whole experience was a great reinforcement of all the decisions we made that brought us to that point.

When we got back we tried a new scuba shop called Goodtime Adventures, they also do rock climbing and flying trapeeze. The vibe at this place was exactly what we were looking for: stress free, laid back and focused on fun. I decided to keep pushing further with scuba and started my training to become a professional divemaster. I’d always thought scuba diving would be a great second career (if you can call it that) and Koh Tao is known for being one of the most beautiful (and cheapest) scuba destinations in the world. Lauren gave scuba a few more tries and decided it really wasn’t her thing so she started a climbing course to become a rockmaster. Like me with scuba, it is something she has always wanted to learn. She has fallen in love with climbing and comes back every day covered in bruises, calluses and smiles.

We’ve made such great new friends on the island, and it’s starting to feel like home. It feels good to have a purpose for awhile. We are absolutely going to get on the road again at some point, but for now we are living cheap and doing what we love on a tropical island… Why would we leave?

The last few weeks have been interesting. We’ve settled into a bit of a routine and our training kinda feels like work… But in a good way. Lauren is already guiding beginner climbers and I’m close to finishing up my divemaster training. She’s seen some amazing views from atop the island and I’ve dove with whale sharks twice! The bonus is once we complete our training we might even be able to make some extra money doing something we and a lot of other people are paying to do for fun.

I’ve fallen in love with the underwater world in the same way I love flying. The silence and serenity are unexplainable unless you’ve done it. I’ve blown a fair amount of money on scuba gear and training, but somehow justified it by the fact that I will be able to work anywhere in the tropics forever if I so choose. The long hair, no shirt and wearing flip flops to work style is fitting me a little better than a buzzcut and a prompt military schedule. The best part is that Lauren is climbing out of the same shop I’m diving at. We share lunch most days and go out to dinner every evening. It’s been busy, but once we finish the training we plan on settling into a part time work schedule and slowing down again.

I think we’re “supposed” to be on a bicycle trip, but I guess this chapter is a little more spontaneous and a little less spinning. In the meantime, we’ve got the two most expensive clothes hangers in all of Asia!

*Underwater photos courtesy of Logan Brown.

*Whale shark videos courtesy of some girl with a go pro who was on the same boat as me.

Being happy is the only thing that matters…

A few years ago in San Antonio Texas, we were out at a bar with our friend Mike. He was travelling across the country and went out of his way to meet us while I was there for some training. We have a running deal that wherever I travel to, he will come visit. We went out for drinks and had a ball. We wound up at “Howl at the Moon”, a dueling piano bar where they had two giant mirrors behind the stage where you could pay money to write a message. The deal was, pay a dollar more than the last person, and they would erase their message and replace it with yours. Our message was, “Being happy is the only thing that matters. If you’re not happy, it’s your own damned fault!”. It stayed on the wall for hours.

We are doing exactly what we want and we’re really happy! Seriously, it’s not some unattainable goal that you can’t achieve because of bills or debt or illness… All that is required is wanting it and taking the first step. We just found what really makes us happy, then took the steps to make that our life! I’ll talk about our journey, but I think the basic principles can apply to anything you want out of life whether it’s travel or restoring an old car or changing careers. Also, yes, you can totally do crazy random shit with kids. We see people all over the place with them. A girl in my scuba class has a 7 year old who goes to the international school in Koh Tao and runs around the hostel or plays on the beach all day! He is guaranteed to grow up and be awesome. We see him playing computer games and being a normal kid, who also speaks three languages. So sit back, grab a beer and listen to a part of our story. Or don’t, either way you should sit back and have a beer because it is Wednesday… I think.

Our lives were very different 5 years ago. The circumstances and details don’t really matter that much, but we both remember when it all started to change. We were on Christmas break from work and school and took a trip to Florida to visit my brother and his in-laws somewhere outside of Daytona. They had a second house on a beautiful plot of land where they kept their harness racing horses in the winter. They suggested a campground a mile or two down the road and Lauren and I, along with my folks, each stayed in the campground “Cabins”. In reality they were park model trailers with wood siding permanently parked on the campground which most resort style camping places will have. The trip was great, but that is not why I’m talking about it. About ten minutes after we got the keys to the cabin, which was maybe 180 square feet with a sleeping loft upstairs, we looked at each other and said, “We could live in one of these!” The trip came and went and we didn’t think much of it.

Fast forward a few months and we were living in an old farmhouse in Mississippi, driving 35 and 40 minutes to work everyday and thinking we had it made. I was flying my ass off in the Air Force and Lauren was finishing up her bachelor’s degree. We had plenty of money and were saving a bit while spending the rest. We spent several months there until one day we realized we had multiple rooms that had nothing in them but boxes and mattresses that no one slept on. We had been living in this house for months and hadn’t opened half of our stuff. Thus, the great idea was born!

It took a few months of brainstorming and ideas, but soon I was calling the campground in Florida to get the information for the manufacturer of the cabin. We had decided to minimize and build a tiny house. We had it custom built and lived happily for 2 years in our charming little cabin on wheels.

Here comes the first lesson we learned: You don’t need stuff! There are a dozen cliches about your stuff owning you and every one of them is absolutely true. We sold what was valuable on Craigslist and had a garage sale for the rest. We kept the toys that took us outside (bikes, backpacks, kayaks etc.) since that is what made us happy. At the end of the garage sale we were giving away hundreds of dollars worth of stuff just to get rid of it. We didn’t miss any of it! Space became our new concern instead of price if we bought something. We just made “compromises” like having the one cup Keurig instead of the giant deluxe model. We actually became stronger as a couple because we were never more than 10 feet away from one another. When we had company over, we had to go outside… Oh darn.

There was definitely some bad with the good, towing the tiny house was awful due to the fact that it was a barn door on the highway. Living in a campground in Mississippi introduced us to some very eccentric neighbors, but also we made some great friends and had some wild times. Overall we loved it. I got a new assignment in the Air Force and we towed it all the way to Tucson, Arizona where we had a sweet gig. We parked it in our friend Mike’s backyard and I paid $250 to have a 50 amp plug installed so we could have electricity. He was a Snowbird and only spent part of the year in Tucson, so we had a million dollar view for the low price of keeping an eye on his place while he was gone. Nothing great lasts forever and he ended up selling the place so we decided to downsize once again and moved into an Airstream trailer so we could be more mobile. The tiny house was a pain to sell but that’s another story.

Our neighbors.

We continued to downsize, even though we really didn’t have to. It became a habit to go through our closet every few months and get rid of crap we didn’t wear. We realized we don’t need 3 skillets, we need one. People in the Air Force gave me shit all the time for being weird, but I just smiled as they drove away in their brand new cars to their giant houses that were costing them thousands of dollars a month. Our cars were paid for with cash and I made another great discovery.

Mr. Money Mustache is a quasi famous financial blogger who is less about finance and more about living a reasonable life and not blowing all your money on stupid stuff. He retired at 30 and is living a dream life in Colorado on $25,000 a year with a family of three. Check out his website for the details. Loosely following his philosophy, we we were putting aside over half of our take-home pay to pay down debt and when that was done, we were saving that money. We made reasonable choices and didn’t buy things that didn’t increase our happiness. We weren’t living destitute by any means though. The small RV fridge was always stocked with top shelf IPAs and Lauren cooked gourmet dinners most days of the week. We tried to stick to a policy of only going out to eat for things we couldn’t cook like Indian and Ethiopian food. We obviously had moments of weakness, but overall the principles worked. The plan was to finish out my commitment to the Air Force, then go travel the world on bicycles, taking breaks when we ran out of money and doing part time work like caretaking, bartending or maybe becoming a scuba instructor. In the meantime, we spent a lot of time outside and made awesome friends. Life in Tucson was good!

This has been hanging in my office for years.

Crashing a random wedding rehearsal with Luu, a warmshowers guest and Ben n Kelly!

Things do not always go as planned. I got hit with a curveball as I was finishing up my training in the A-10. I found out I have arthritis in my back and wouldn’t be able to fly fighters anymore. Long story short, I was medically discharged, and our adventures would be starting a little earlier than planned with a little less cushy financial cushion. We could have stayed in Tucson. I could have easily found a job with Raytheon making good money or flown for the airlines, but we didn’t want more money, we wanted to see the world. Sometimes life happens… You can either bitch and complain about how things aren’t fair, or you can not do that and find something else that makes you happy… We chose the latter.

I don’t know very much. I’m 32 years old and just trying to live the best life I can. I have had some shitty luck and some good luck. Actually no, there is no luck. You’ve got to make your own luck. Anything else is just an excuse. What I do know is that even if I had a billion dollars, I’d be sitting on the exact same island I’m on right now with the exact same person riding the exact same bikes. I’d still be drinking a Cha Tri Thai IPA and probably still typing this on a bluetooth keyboard on my cell phone.
Space has become the ultimate commodity for us living on bikes and we make all of our purchases (not many) based on that more than price. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m happy. The journey to that happiness was an unexpected one, and certainly didn’t happen overnight. You don’t need to sell all of your stuff and go ride bikes in a foreign country to be happy, unless that is really what you want.

What you do need to do, at least if you bothered to read this far, is take that beer in your hand, walk away from your computer and go outside. Sit on the cold ground for a few minutes and think about what you would do if you didn’t have to work anymore. It sounds like a high school guidance counselor exercise, but honestly go do it. Whatever the thing is that you came up with, make it your priority. Make it a financial priority over the new car you were going to buy or the trip to an all inclusive resort in Cancun or even that $60 steak from Ruth’s Chris (Unless it’s your birthday, then eat the most expensive steak you can find). Make it a time priority instead of wasting time on the internet or spending time at lame office parties with people you don’t like.

If you think it is unachievable, or retirement is too far off, the next time you are going to check facebook or watch cat videos on the internet, read a Mr. Money Mustache article or find some other way to get closer to that goal. Or don’t… Do whatever you want.

As I write this, am sitting here on a tropical island in a room that costs less than $9 a night. The air conditioner is not even connected because we don’t need it and my biggest problem in the world right now is the fact that we have to run to the border in Myanmar tomorrow night to re-enter Thailand so we can stay longer. Actually, that’s my second biggest problem, the first is deciding if I want to be a scuba diving instructor, or ride my bicycle with my wife up the Eastern coast of Myanmar. And it’s Thursday… I think.