Cattle, Statues and Lots of Miles

FullSizeRender 232The cowboy and cattle are real. We know because they strolled across our Montana highway this afternoon. We had to wait until they passed.

The stylized horse and rabbit are statues. We know because we saw them in a sculpture garden in downtown Des Moines.

IMG_0904We’ve seen so much since we left the Chicago area three days ago: The University of Iowa in Iowa City. The spectacular capitol building in Des Moines. A Lewis and Clark memorial overlooking Council Bluffs. A bustling evening scene in Omaha. The Corn Palace in Mitchell. Badlands National Park. Mount Rushmore.

What’s made an even bigger impression, though, is the land itself. Today we drove mile after mile through North Dakota and Montana, the blue sky towering above us, the range extending in every direction, the highway empty. Life in this part of America is so different from what we knew in Durham, much less in Washington. We just returned to our Big Sky Motel in Roundup, Montana, after eating at the Busy Bee Cafe, where the walls were decorated with cowboy art and Garth Brooks played in the background. Men wore cowboy hats in the booths. The cash register offered handicrafts from a local Indian tribe.

IMG_0992This is why we travel — not only to be surprised and awed by tourist sites that exceed our expectations, as happened at the Badlands (shown left). What stays with us even more is the the sensation of seeing life through new eyes, of being reminded that other realities exist beyond our own routines.

Tomorrow we finish this big stretch of the trip, ending up near Glacier National Park, where we hope to hike for three days. Then it’s on to Seattle.

Incidentally, our caption contest is now under way to write the funniest caption for our Blue Devil gnome, G, who we photographed this morning at Mount Rushmore. Get funny. Take a look at and submit your entry!

The Love Club and the Gnome

Meet Shashi and Peter, fellow members of one of the most exclusive love clubs in the world.

Peter and I may be the only people on Earth who can say they were Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Nepal and fell in love with a beautiful Limbu woman from the eastern town of Ilam. I was posted in Ilam during my first year of service, teaching in a school where Champa was also a teacher, which is how we met. Peter served several years later, in another town, and met Shashi, who grew up in Ilam near Champa. They married and have now lived for many years in the Chicago area, with two terrific kids.

imageWhen we visited yesterday, Shashi cooked one of her amazing meals. (I’ll be disappointed in my foodie friends back in Durham if they don’t post some comments about the spread she laid out, shown in the top photo.)

What was even more amazing, though, was her disappointment that we didn’t bring G, the traveling Blue Devil gnome. (He was taking a nap in our car and we didn’t want to disturb him when we left in another car.) Shashi’s niece joined in scolding us with a smile, saying she’s been following G’s adventures ( and wanted to see what he looks like in person. Shashi also hoped to introduce him to her own garden gnome, who you can see in the photo under her right hand.

In the video below, Shashi makes clear that we better not show up again without the gnome. (She calls me Binaju, or “Bina,” which literally means brother-in-law but is also used with close friends.)

Shashi, we promise. We’ll be remembering you and all of our Chicago friends as we embark on one of the longest drives of our journey, a four-day stretch across Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana, ending up at Glacier National Park. Off we go.

Science and Faith in Chicago

A temple of science, a temple of faith. That’s what we saw today in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Champa and Rekha tour the exhibits at FermilabThe temple of science was the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. It’s near the home of our Nepali relatives, where we’ve been staying. They’d been meaning to visit Fermilab but had never quite made it. Our visit changed that. As a long-time science writer who once worked on an article with Leon Lederman, the “God Particle” Nobel Prize-winning former director of the lab, I asked whether we could make a quick visit.

Even though it was Saturday and the lab’s welcome center was nearly deserted, we all had a great time touring the exhibits and beautiful grounds, which include a herd of bison. Muons! Neutrinos! Water fountains on a hot day!

imageThe temple of faith was the Sri Venkateswara Swami (Balaji) Temple in Aurora, which mainly serves the large South Indian community in this area. While we were there, temple members began celebrating Teppotsavam, a colorful ceremony in which devotees carry religious objects from the temple to a float on an adjacent pond. As you can watch in the video clip below, the procession was accompanied by drums, horns and prayers.

And so we wrapped up a great stop in the Chicago area, although you’ll see one more post tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon that involves a certain gnome. You’ll also meet a couple of friends who, along with Champa and me, may be the world’s only members of an extremely exclusive club.

Finally, a request: Even if you’re reading this blog via our Facebook site, we encourage you to subscribe to it here on WordPress. Likewise for our “gnome site” on Instagram ( Doing so will help us track our readership. Please sign up (twice) — and either post or send us comments about what you think. We’d welcome the feedback. (Being on the road, it’s really hard to know.) In advance: Thanks!

Mosquitoes in Indiana

IMG_0744Why didn’t anyone warn us about the mosquitoes in Indiana?

We enjoyed driving through the state yesterday. We really did. The lush fields of corn and soybeans, the picturesque barns … it all made for a lovely trip as we made our way from Cleveland to Aurora, outside Chicago, where we’re staying for a few days with Nepali relatives.

We decided to break up the trip with a picnic and hike. While flipping through a brochure at an Indiana rest stop, I found a listing for the Ropchan Memorial Nature Preserve in Steuben County. It was only 15 minutes off the highway, so we decided to give it a try. (Serendipity!) I entered the coordinates into our GPS and, sure enough, we soon ended up at a trailhead on a remote country road. Ours was the only car there. After a quick lunch, we set off on tIMG_0732he trail.

We hadn’t thought to apply insect repellant before we left. To quote Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: “Big mistake. Huge.” Halfway into the hike, we passed a swamp and were attacked by swarms of mosquitoes. We walked faster and faster, flapping our arms, but still they swirled and bit us. (Possible caption for this photo: “Champa, take my photo for the blog!” “Forget your stupid blog! I’m not stopping!” You’ll notice she took one anyway; feel free to thank her with comments here.)

So, if you ever find yourself in northeastern Indiana and want an idyllic place to hike, check out the Ropchan Preserve. It’s off the beaten track but beautiful and worth the trip. Just don’t forget the mosquitoes. They’ll be waiting for you.

Culture in Cleveland

IMG_0471 In my last two posts, I wrote about food and spirituality. But any great culture also needs, well, great culture.

That’s what we’ve enjoyed during two days in Cleveland, a city we had never visited before. We drove up yesterday from West Virginia, stopping en route to tour a candy-making factory in North Canton whose operation made Champa think of the famous Lucy episode where the assembly line runs wild.

After reaching Cleveland, we spent most of the afternoon at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The breath and quality of its collection was impressive, spanning a wide range of eras and styles. It was housed in a magnificent facility conceived by Rafael Viñoly, the same architect who designed the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

FullSizeRender 176Today we devoted the entire day to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which exceeded my high expectations. I grew up with this music and was engrossed by the exhibits, videos and memorabilia, which ranged from Jerry Garcia’s guitars to Michael Jackson’s glove to gowns worn by Diana Ross and Beyonce. (Yes, that’s a custom motorcycle owned by Elvis.)

After leaving the museum, we drove to Edgewater Park to walk along Lake Erie. Then, we joined a large crowd of our new Cleveland friends at a free outdoor R&B concert at Wade Oval, a park in University Circle where Case Western Reserve University and other institutions are located. (That’s a video snippet below.) Finally, we ate a late dinner in Little Italy, eating pasta and listening to Dean Martin on an outdoor patio at a family-owned restaurant.

Fine art. Rock. R&B. Deano. Cleveland does rock.

Hindu Temple in West Virginia

Birds chirped. Frogs croaked. From our bench beside a lily pond filled with blooming flowers, we gazed on a golden temple. No one was around us as the sun began to set and a gentle breeze rustled the tall grass.

We were in New Vrindabimagean, a Hindu temple and retreat near Wheeling, West Virginia. We’d heard about it for years from Champa’s family and friends, so decided to finally visit.

I’m not a Hindu or Hare Krishna devotee, and I didn’t participate in the prayers, but the imagegenerosity and serenity of our hosts was undeniable. We ate a delicious vegetarian dinner — sorry about my previous post — and stayed overnight in their lodge.

At Duke, my life was always hurry, hurry. Here, I had no cell phone reception, no wireless connection, no worries. What a difference. Hare, hare.

Giant Sandwiches in Pittsburgh

[Vegetarians Should Consider Skipping This Post.]

We traveled today from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, where we drove around the city, rode the Monongahela Incline and marveled at the endless bridges.

The real highlight, though, was an outrageous lunch we ate at Fat Heads, a local saloon that features “headwiches” — sandwiches as big as a person’s head. We saw it recommended on both the Roadfood and Food Network sites.

FullSizeRender 129

Champa ordered the Bay of Pigs, made with pulled pork, ham, Swiss, pickles, honey mustard and “killer sauce.” The menu compared it to “an invasion of your stomach.” I ate the Mighty Fine Bovine, which featured brisket, pastrami, Swiss, hot pepper-kraut, onion, pickles and garlic-parm mayo. Providing nutritional balance were abundant house-made potato chips.

Each of us could only finish half of our sandwich, so we saved the rest for dinner. This reduced the overall caloric load, cost and guilt for the day. Now we feel virtuous.

Steelers, Pirates, Penguins … all good. Sandwiches as big as your head? Definitely worth a visit.

Planning for Serendipity

Almost every family that likes to travel has one person who does the planning. In our family, that’s me. I’ve always considered planning to be half the fun of a trip — figuring out where to go, what to eat, where to stay. As you can see from the photo, I’m now focusing on our upcFullSizeRender 61oming stops in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, reviewing brochures and checking information online. Champa and I will be leaving Philadelphia tomorrow, after spending two great days with our family, and I have a pretty good idea what we’ll be doing for the next stretch. That won’t surprise anyone who has worked with me. I’m a planner who likes schedules.

Until last night, however, the extent of my planning for Pittsburgh was to know it is west of Philadelphia, along our general route. I deliberately resisted my natural urge to spend hours on TripAdvisor or local websites coming up with a detailed plan. For there and elsewhere, I have tried to keep our trip open to serendipity, or at least to keep planning to a minimum. If we’re so busy racing to Site No. 4 in a city, I figure, we may not spot the charming church fair or local pie stand along the road, much less stop to take a look.FullSizeRender 46

When people asked me over the past several months why I would walk away from a job and colleagues I love to travel around the United States and Nepal, I spoke often of how Champa and I love to travel — which we do — and of our desire to take a break from the conventional routine. But it was more than that. After being tied to calendars and project schedules for so many years, I wanted to embrace the unknown. The phrase I found myself using was “put myself in the path of serendipity.” Mike Schoenfeld heard me say it so often that he bought me this book about the origins and unexpected usages of the word “serendipity.”

I’m not sure Pittsburgh and Cleveland have appeared often in the same sentence as “serendipity,” and the top photo shows I will retain my planning instincts no matter how serendipitous my current intentions. Still, I know there has to be a better balance between the two, and I want to find it. Louis Pasteur famously noted that chance favors the prepared mind. And, yes, Drew Carey famously noted that Cleveland rocks. So bring it on.

[An Editorial Note: The Blue Devil gnome we’ve nicknamed “G” is still traveling with us. You can follow his humorous photo adventures — GNome Expression — at davidjarmul on Instagram. We welcome your comments here about both this blog and the Instagram photos. Write us!]

Back in The People’s Republic

North Carolina friends, Maryland friends, let me ask you both a question. I’m going to describe a city. You need to guess which one it is. Readers in other states or countries are welcome to guess as well. Ready?

FullSizeRender 20OK, this city is not large, but it’s not tiny, either. It’s well-known within its larger metropolitan area for its ethnic diversity, liberal politics and funky charm. It has a vibrant farmers market and a disproportionate number of people with Obama bumper stickers, not to mention people our age who still gather at the local gazebo to play drums on a drizzly Thursday evening, as seen below. There are great local restaurants and a lively music scene. Because of its many charms, it faces both the benefits and challenges of gentrification. Oh, and one more thing … Champa and I lived here for many years.

North Carolina readers: The answer is Durham, right? Well, in most respects, yes. But today I’m describing our former home, Takoma Park, Maryland, where we arrived yesterday on the first leg of our journey. Along the way, we stopped at the National Air and Space Museum center near Dulles Airport.

FullSizeRender 19It’s fun to be back. Today we’ll be spending the day at the National Portrait Gallery and other sites in downtown Washington. Tonight we will probably go out to dinner, perhaps at Takoma Park’s latest hot spot, Republic. It takes its name ironically from “People’s Republic of Takoma Park.” As we might say in Durham: Power to the people, y’all.

A Previous Road Trip Remembered

My last big road trip was in 1975-76, when I traveled across Asia, Africa and Europe with my friend. This photo was taken in ... wait for it ... Kabul, Afghanistan.
My last big road trip was in 1975-76, when I traveled across Asia, Africa and Europe with my friend. This photo was taken in … wait for it … Kabul, Afghanistan.

Suitcases are now strewn across our bedroom as we get ready to load up our car for our big road trip, which starts tomorrow morning. I find myself thinking back to the last time I set off on a major road trip, in 1975. I had just graduated from college and left to backpack around the world with my friend, Mitch. (We’ll be visiting him in Portland in a few weeks.) He and I traveled for seven months across Asia, Africa and Europe. We visited Belgium, France, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Egypt and Italy. The entire trip cost $2,100 each, airfares included. Along the way, we traversed the Khyber Pass, hiked the Himalayas, were arrested by Idi Amin’s goons in Uganda and had too many adventures to count.

That trip changed my life, making me more self-confident and curious about the world. A year after we returned, I joined the Peace Corps in Nepal, which also proved transformative, and not only because I met Champa. Travel showed me the possibilities life offers, which our daily routines tend to obscure.

Mitch and I traveled with only backpacks. Tomorrow, Champa and I set off in a Ford Fusion crammed with clothes, gifts, brochures and snacks. I know she and I won’t see those two Afghan boys who sold me a pair of colorful woolen socks on the streets of Kabul in 1975. But I’m confident something else is waiting to make us see differently.

Join us on the journey.

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