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Round the world with Sarah

Getting hitched… finally

March 14th, 2010 Posted in China, Egypt, Israel, Kenya, Laos, Myanmar/Burma, Palestine, South Africa, Thailand, Tibet, Uncategorized, yok | 2 Comments »

We’ve had a number of chapters in our lives together - from our first meeting as awkward teenagers, to a long distance relationship, living together in Seattle, and traveling around the world.¬† You’ve been there for us over the years, and we hope you can help us celebrate as we finally tie the knot.

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  • The ceremony will take place in New York City with a few family members and a video camera.¬† We’ll then be off for a two-week adventure in Columbia where Dan is dragging Sarah through the rain forest, and Sarah is forcing Dan to stop and relax on the beach.¬† Upon our return, we would love nothing more than to have our best friends and dearest family join in helping us kick off the marriage right.

    Our families have planned a full weekend of celebration including a happy hour on Friday and brunch on Sunday.

    Be sure to RSVP here for each of the activities.

    On the logistics page, there’s information about airports, our pre-arranged hotel rooms, and activities.

    Finally, here are some details on our registries.

    If you have any other questions, drop us an email at sewilson81@gmail.com or call 757-619-8178.

    Down By the River

    September 1st, 2008 Posted in South Africa | 3 Comments »

    Wedged between gently rolling hills, a calm meandering river and a stunning slice of rugged Eastern Cape coastline, Bulungula is easily one of the three most heart-wrenchingly beautiful places we’ve been to on this trip. Yet its the extraordinary degree of consideration give to its development that places this charming backpackers lodge heads and shoulders beyond anything else in South Africa.

    Environmental
    The kitchen and common rooms of Bulungula are lit in the evenings by an array of candles and a few solar-powered lights. The drinking water provided is simply cached rain water and other facilities consist of composting toilets and innovative kerosene heated showers. The staff has committed to planting enough trees each year to ensure that the entire operation is carbon neutral.

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    I must admit I rather enjoyed toasting my lunch in the solar cooker out front.

    Cultural
    It’s clear that Bulungula was built with the intention of being an integral part of the local village, rather than separate or adjacent. The rondavels are all constructed using traditional techniques with thatched straw roofs, mud brick walls and beaten mud floors. The village remains only accessible by an hour’s hike from the nearest dirt road, effectively filtering out the typical tourist dross and ensuring that the number of travelers passing through is low enough to have a minimal impact on day-to-day local life.

    Ethical
    Best of all, any profit generated from the lodge goes directly into the hands of contributing villagers. The backpackers is 40% owned by the Bulungula village, and the proceeds for the excellent tours are kept by the guides themselves. Locals with an entrepreneurial spirit are welcome to participate, offering travelers a variety of goods such as solar-baked Xhosa bread and cookies.

    The result of all this is unique opportunity to experience South Africa at its finest. Every traveler who passes through this region inevitably develops an emotional barrier to fend off the constant barrage of touts, beggars and destitute children screaming for sweets. Bulungula was a refreshing change of pace where travelers interact with the Xhosas on even terms and can move freely through the village knowing that they’re truly welcome.

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    Its impossible to spend a few days in this small slice of paradise, and not have those barriers rapidly melt away.

    Living between the Classes

    August 18th, 2008 Posted in Egypt, South Africa | 5 Comments »

    Finally: news from the Traveling Duo!! As planned, we’ve decided to take a break from the traveling-road and settled into a more normal life in Durban, South Africa. Since arriving, we’ve been able to indulge in the privileged luxuries of home: IMAX theaters, shopping malls, 3 meals a day, trendy restaurants/bars, a car, an apartment…We’ve settled down, bought more stuff, taken on jobs and begun a work out routine. While all of this may sound great, we’ve become a little disatisified.

    Upon entering the country, I decided to read a book from premier South African author Nadine Gordimer, World of Strangers. In her novel, she eloquently raised the same issue we have been feeling since we’ve settled down in our middle class lifestyle:

    I wonder why it is that the life of poverty is regarded as more real than any other life. In books and films, the slice of life traditionally is cut from the lower crust; in almost all of us with full bellies, whose personal struggles are above the sustenance level, there is nervous, even a respectful feeling that life may be elsewhere.

    Perhaps its a matter of the “grass is greener” effect and that humans can’t help but view the other side of the class line with a hint of jealousy. Or perhaps, there is more to this phenomena.

    Prior to South Africa, “traveling” for us was living in the lower-classes. Taking public buses, living in the poor/urban sections of town, eating street food, living with bugs and dirt in our room. In Egypt, we ate greasy, carb-centric street food with no nutritional value, got in fights with the local laundry man over a $1 price difference, whiled our time away by hanging out in small alleyways and chatting with the locals. In Israel, we walked next to bullet-riddled buildings listening to the desperation in the residents’ stories and stayed near Damascus gate, otherwise known as “the wrong side of town”. These experiences were new to us: we were learning about a completely different way of living.

    When we’ve been privileged to experience life on the other side of the class line, often having the two classes juxtaposed next to each other, we saw a lifestyle similar to the one we experienced at home in the US. In Israel, we watched the wealthy shop at fashion boutiques as we indulged in sweets at the ice cream parlor. In Egypt, we were invited by our dear friend Medhat to spend the weekend with his family at their summer home. We went to shopping centers, had home-delivered pizza, drank beer and wine and talked about philosophy, university, and traveling.

    In our experience, the cultural lines become blurred once wealth arrives and the upper/middle class begins to look the same no matter where you go. In any semi-developed country, life in the upper class revolves around similar Hollywood-influenced ideas of what life should look like - go to university and then work at an office job, shop at malls, eat at upscale restaurants, go to the cinema, learn English.

    On the other hand, the poor seem to have been sheltered from these effects of globalization.¬† While every Egyptian aspires to wear designer jeans and drive a BMW, only the wealthier ones can afford to live out their dream.¬† The blue collar guy that mans the local shwarma remains stuck in his traditional robes, walking or hitching rides to work.¬† He simply doesn’t have the opportunity to experience the same lifestyle as you would living in Europe or the US. Now that we are living in the middle class life in South Africa, perhaps we need to go to the poor sections of town and learn what it really means to be South African.

     

     

     

     

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    Tomorrow, Maybe

    June 30th, 2008 Posted in Israel, Palestine | 1 Comment »

    Inshallah bukra mumkin. If God is willing, [it will happen] tomorrow, maybe.

    This is a fairly common phrase within the Arabic business community. Its American counterpart sounds something like ‚ÄúWell, my plate‚Äôs pretty full‚Ķ‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúI‚Äôm pretty sure <insert co-worker name> has some spare cycles.‚ÄĚ Hearing it pretty much guarantees the expected deliverable will be harangued by endless procrastination. After all, if it was Allah‚Äôs will, then it would‚Äôve gotten done, right?

    I can’t think of a more appropriate phrase to describe the cynical hope for a lasting peace that pervades the Middle East.

    To be Palestinian
    You are gripped by an intense longing for the ancestral homelands you’ve never known. Though the West seems to have forgotten, your people had been living in modern day Israel for generations upon generations - and had put down deep roots. You’ve grown up as a refugee in the West Bank, and spent countless hours covering the walls adjacent to your home depicting the Arabic villages of your father.

    You carry the burden of despair and hopelessness, arising from the sure knowledge that you are unable to change your situation. Like many others, you have resigned yourself to praying that the world’s superpowers will awaken one day to your plight, and that your children will lead better lives.

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    To be Israeli
    Whether you’re conscious of it or not, within you simmers nervous fear that itches at your fight/flight instincts. Its a feeling not dissimilar to that experienced by a white guy walking alone in a predominantly black and violent neighborhood. Or conversely, the broiling emotional cauldron experienced by Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas. Regardless of whether there is ill intent, it feels like everyone is out to get you.

    Now, it seems like the sun is setting. You’re certain that an Iranian moon is rapidly rising in the East, ushering in a nuclear night. This particular hood is about to get a whole lot more dangerous and you’re expecting Tel Aviv to be the next Hiroshima. Worse, these fears have been confirmed by friends actively involved in the military, all of whom expect to be engaged in Iran within two years. While Gaza is a constant thorn, its merely a piece of the survival puzzle.

    This must be tempered with the fact that the people I’ve encountered, both Israelis (particularly in Tel Aviv) and Palestinians, were incredibly friendly. Yet bring up the opposing nation, and the conversation quickly sours. Israelis become withdrawn and aloof, while the Palestinians (both in the West Bank and Jordan) get worked up and angry. It‚Äôs tragic how such wonderful people could develop this deep hatred for each other. With bad blood between these groups now spanning generations, its clear there will be no easy resolution. A two state solution would only give Israel a hostile neighbor in an already volatile region, and your opponents another potential weapon. Yet to refrain from such a solution would be to continue oppressing a people that absolutely have the right to self rule.

    I hope that Palestine will gain its freedom, and Israel will gain an ally in its Arab neighbor. If God is willing, peace will come tomorrow or in the near future. But from what I’ve seen thus far, that’s a big maybe.

    Dazed & Confused

    June 13th, 2008 Posted in Egypt, Israel, Kenya | 4 Comments »

    This post should be about the crazy adventures we’ve just had, joining up with Sarah’s parents with a world-wind tour of the ancient civilizations of Egypt and the natural wonders of Kenya. It should be about the generosity of the world - whether from strangers on the bus who offer their hospitality or a dear friend of Sarah’s mothers who lavished us with gifts, love, and kindness.

    We’ve spent the last two weeks holding on tight to an open-air jeep as we cruised past lions, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, zebras, rhinos, and buffalo. We’ve cruised the Nile and walked the footsteps of ancient Egyptian royalty. We’ve had our problems: stolen camera, the most incompetent travel agency (Naggar travel), a guide who actually made us more clueless about history. But we’ve also had more laughs imaginable: Sarah’s Dad and Daniel as roomies, an accidental slip of the mind as the Yahtzee dice were dropped into the wine glass (let’s just say alcohol was hard to find so when it was available, we took advantage), Sarah becoming a two-time Yahtzee Cup champion, smoking sheesha out of our noses, watching as Sarah’s Dad freaked out on his first camel ride.

    These last few weeks have been what traveling should be about. Learning about other cultures, politics, history; having fun; and spending time with people you love the most. But all we can think about right now is how much we miss the luxuries of home.

    We’ve been on the road now for over five months. Being an independent traveler has its advantages: interacting with locals, paying local prices, freedom to travel where you want and when you want, but it can grind you down as well - both physically and emotionally. In order to survive this kind of life, you have to learn to live in the moment.

    Before, we had become naturals at this. We could patiently wait during long transits, deflect and even occasionally befriend the touts, go to a city without any real plan and not stress. Now, we’ve been re-acquainted with the sumptuous comfort of the Western lifestyle, and the last few days have been the toughest on us yet. Our plan was to hang out on the beaches of Jordan for a few days to relax and readjust to the budget-life, but a last minute decision landed us in Jerusalem at 2:30 am.

    Even though Israeli standards of living are much more on par with the US than say Burma, its been much harder to adjust. Cars drive incredibly fast, there are parking lots and burger joints and everyone looks sort of like us again (well, not Daniel). We spent the first few hours wandering around the city like lost souls and two days for us to finally get out of the hostel and really see the sites.

    Fortunately, I think we are slowly adjusting back into the nomadic lifestyle.¬† After a refreshing float in the Dead Sea, we’re ready to test our traveler’s mettle in the most politically unstable region we’ve yet to encounter - the Palestinian territories.

    Surf & Sand

    June 8th, 2008 Posted in Egypt, Thailand | 2 Comments »

    Due to a combination of laziness, constant activity and surprisingly, writer’s block, there has been a distinct dearth of posts in the past few weeks. Here’s a brief summary of what we’ve been doing to bring you up to speed, with extra photos to compensate for the lack of creative prose:

    Andaman Sea
    After weathering the bone-numbing cold of China’s winters and the ind-melting heat of Myanmar’s summer, we were ready to set aside some time for more relaxed travel. Enter the turquoise waters and refreshing sea breezes of Thailand. We spent two full weeks enjoying the turquoise waters and refreshing sea breezes of Ko Lipe and Ko Phi Phi. Our daily activities was usually some mixture of sun bathing, snorkeling, trekking, rock climbing and generally having a good time.

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    White Desert
    This was our first time this trip that we had ventured beyond Asia, and discovered a less conventional locale for surf and sand in Egypt. The White Desert proved to be spectacular and the harsh, wind-swept beauty literally moved Sarah to tears. She ended up developing a special bond with Mona (the name she gave her camel), and our Bedouin hosts ensured crackling bonfire evenings. Sleeping out in the open desert under the stars is a magical experience - Dan witnessed three shooting stars in the span of 15 minutes!

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    Sinai
    The Red Sea is legendary amongst divers for its crystal clear waters with visibility up to 40 meters. After Dan earned his Advanced Open Water certification there, we can attest that it does not disappoint. Some of the more memorable moments include brilliantly colored cuttlefish, night diving with lion fish and free falling to depths of 30+ meters through canyons in the ocean floor.

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    We will do our best to keep more posts¬†coming.¬†¬†It’s now the halfway point in our trip so more great adventures to come.¬†

    Dodging the Bullet

    May 8th, 2008 Posted in Myanmar/Burma | 3 Comments »

    I was pleasantly surprised to have found several urgent emails from a number of friends who were concerned that Sarah and I might have been caught in the devastating wake of Cyclone Nagris. To alleviate any outstanding concerns, I thought I should announce that we are completely safe.

    We actually left Yangon nearly two weeks ago, and have been lazing away the days on some of Thailand’s most beautiful islands. Being on the Andaman Sea meant we were on the fringes of the storm but the worst that we experienced was an extended down pour and heavier than usual winds - nothing compared to the monumental suffering the Burmese must cope with.

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  • Someone came quickly to put another can by his plate, and he picked this up and drank half of it immediately. Yes, it really does take eleven gallons of oil to light one 75-watt bulb for a year.

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  • This shares some similarities with our Tibet trip. We spent nearly a month there, and shared a magical time with many locals while we were there. Yet only a couple of weeks after our departure, we started reading the early reports about the escalating violence that would consume Lhasa. Some of the travelers that we had traded stories with over beers were trapped in the city, literally barricaded for days within the tenuous safety of our hostel.

    As we start the next leg of our journey in the Middle East, I’m really starting to appreciate the luck we’ve had thus far avoiding serious tragedy. Knock on wood.

    Powerless

    April 29th, 2008 Posted in Myanmar/Burma | 9 Comments »

    After traveling for four months, we have gotten used to certain things:¬† twelve or more hour bus/train journeys, uncomfortable seating, foul smells, and tight corridors.¬† Usually these journeys are made more bearable by the kindness of strangers.¬† People who point the way to the toilets or invite you to join in their meal.¬† Our trip from Mandalay to Yangon was no exception.¬† The distance wasn’t as vast, a mere 386 miles, but due to frequent stops and poor rail conditions, it would take us 18 grueling hours under the hot, hot, sun.

    To pass the time, we spent a couple hours chatting with a published Burmese poet, his wife, a friend of theirs, who owned a beauty shop, and¬†their dog.¬† Over local Burmese sweets and scrumptious bananas, we talked¬†about our families, superficial differences between life in¬†America versus Burma, and American¬†politics (the poet mistakenly thought Sarah’s father was President¬†Bush).¬† Suddenly, in a fit of panic,¬†our¬†three new friends declared that the police were coming and that we needed to return to our car immediately!¬† Although the reaction was abrupt, we didn’t really think much of it.¬† We assumed that this was a routine check for the police to search through luggage.¬† Exiting their car, we realized that no one else¬†on the train¬†seemed¬†alarmed.¬† People were still hanging out in the hallway with their head hanging out the window, trying to cope with the heat.¬† The¬†amiable conductor was standing close by, but he was our friend and not the police.¬† However, life in Myanmar is dramatically different than any life we’ve known.¬† To us, the conductor is a friend, someone to go to in case of trouble.¬† To our new friends, however, he represented a potential spy, and even though our conversation was light, speaking with tourists could be construed as¬†subvertive with¬†jail time looming as a potential punishment.¬†

    This August will mark the twentieth anniversary of the junta’s military coup.¬†¬† Despite a landslide victory of the National Leadership Democracy (NLD)¬†party lead by Aung San Suu Kyi in 1990,¬† General Saw Maung refused to step down and the country continues to be lead by an oppressive military regime.¬† Despite the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, it is clear that she remains a symbol of a free society.¬† Perhaps it is because of the popularity of the NLD and/or the international pressures for the current government to step down, the government serves as a reactive force denying basic human rights and instilling fear in its people.¬† From our short trip to Myanmar we encountered:

    • $6 per liter¬†petrol prices:¬† the government rations the petrol forcing civilians to buy via an super inflated black market.¬† Considering meals in Myanmar cost less than $.50 the rising petrol price is becoming a serious stress on people’s everyday lifestyles.
    • Sporadic electricity:¬† 106 temperatures are unbearable, this heat combined with the fact that most days the government fails to provide electricity is inhumane.¬† Yangon, the old capitol of Myanmar with a population of over $6 million, rarely has government power.¬† After the government decided to build a new capitol, it took the infrastructure with it.¬† The situation in the rest of the country is the same.¬† As a result, every home and business has its own petrol-powered generator further intensifying the fuel crisis.
    • Poor infrastructure:¬† roads, telephone lines, public transport, banks (ATMs are non-existent, the official government rate is ~6 kyat to the dollar, while the actual rate is closer to 1000 plus), sidewalks, etc.¬†restoration has been completely ignored.
    • Demonetized kyat:¬† in 1987, the government demonetized¬†the 25, 35 and¬†100 kyat notes without warning rendering 75% of the country’s currency worthless.¬† Since Myanmar is a cash-based society, millions of people found themselves penniless overnight.

    These are but just a few of the problems people struggle with everyday.¬† Tourism has decreased dramatically since the violent attacks on protesting monks, leading to thousands imprisoned or killed, last September.¬† On May 10th 2008, the country will be voting on their constitutional referendum, and as one monk explained in the comforts of his own home, where he could be sure no undercover spies lingered, people are afraid that a similar violence could transpire again.¬† Of course, during this visit we were accompanied by our¬†saengthaw driver’s 13 year old daughter (who we¬†were pretty certain¬†didn’t speak any English), but in Myanmar you can never be so certain so the conversation again ended abruptly.

    To learn more about Burma’s current events, check out http://www.irrawaddy.org.

    Sweet Water

    April 20th, 2008 Posted in Myanmar/Burma | 1 Comment »

    It is hot in Myanmar. Due to some rather unfortunate planning, we find ourselves here at the peak of the dry season, when the entire country has been blanketed by an oppressive heat that beats down in relentless waves. Wandering down the street near Shwedagon Paya, it feels as though we’re breathing in the moist, stale air that someone else recently exhaled. Average highs are around 40 degrees Celsius and naturally there’s precious little reprieve to be found as the incredibly rare air conditioner and ubiquitous but weak fans are both subject to regular power outages - typically during the hottest parts of the day. No wonder Lonely Planet deems April in Myanmar hell month.

    In these stifling conditions, we’ve gained a new appreciation for that glorious natural resource that most Westerners take for granted: water. We’re constantly bathed in sweat and must consume 2-3 liters of water each day to remain hydrated. We take multiple showers throughout the day to cool off. Yet the Burmese have a much deeper appreciation that brings their relationship with water to an almost spiritual level. As one monk told me, the rivers and streams are the life blood of Myanmar. And they joyously welcome the coming of the new year with Thingyan, the Water Festival.

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    A Buddhist holiday, Thingyan was traditionally a time when scented water would be sprinkled over the head of a worshiper to wash away their sins. These days, its morphed into a no-holds-barred splash fest, with throngs of children, armed with buckets and water guns, waiting next to the side of the road to douse drunken revelers as they pass by on foot, bicycle, motorbike or open-air jeeps.

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    In downtown areas, the Burmese stand on massive wooden stages and wield hoses which project water with stunning, riot-control force. Everyone is dancing with reckless abandon to bone-shaking Burmese rock emanating from every car and stage. Regardless of where you go in whatever city, over the course of these 5 days you will be absolutely sopping wet within 5 minutes of stepping outside. As you might imagine, its a welcome change give the current weather conditions.

    Whether its due to the cool water, the fact that its a holiday or the free flowing beer and whiskey, the Burmese manage to reach new heights of warm friendliness during the festival. Everyone you pass has a genuine, warm smile and wave to offer and most of the time, a splash or three of water to accompany the greeting. We’ve been offered the opportunity to both give and take, hopping on the backs of random trucks and jeeps to party underneath stage-induced waterfalls and laughing along with an army of children as we create a torrential downpour on every vehicle that passes us on the road.

    Sadly, Thingyan has come and gone. Once again, the country must cope with the blistering sun and its hot, humid breath. But at least for a little while, we had managed to find a piece of water-soaked heaven in the hell that is Myanmar in April.

    Living in the Nau

    April 15th, 2008 Posted in Myanmar/Burma | 3 Comments »

    Shortly before leaving Seattle, I stumbled across a new retailer at Bellevue Square Mall while doing some holiday shopping. At this point, I had already begun planning my travels in earnest, and being the gadget geek that I am, was constantly looking for versatile, effective gear.

    Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for the past 5 years, I’ve become a bit spoiled when it comes to outdoor performance apparel. Yet even the highest quality trekking clothing doesn’t quite work for travel, as they tend to come in bright (dare I say garish?) colors and patterns. I needed something that would transition more easily between the jungles of Burma to the urban equivalent in Tel Aviv.

    Enter Nau, a brilliant new startup based out of Portland. Started by one of the co-founders of Marmot and former execs from Patagonia and Nike, their clothing is developed with three fundamental design principles in mind: beauty, performance and sustainability. The net result is a buttery soft micro fleece made completely from recycled polyester and styled like a motorcycle racing jacket or a pair of trendy 100% organic cotton trousers that have been treated with DWR. None of their clothing feature logos of any sort, and its also worth mentioning that they donate 5% of every purchase to a non-profit of your choice!

    Enthused about my new find, I quickly picked up a few select articles, knowing that these would be the only clothes I would carry with me for a year on the road. Thus far, I’ve been incredibly pleased with how the clothes have held up under the rigors of travel. I’ve lost count of how many travelers I’ve met who have marveled at how small my backpack is, and I’m convinced this due in part to the small, but efficient Nau wardrobe I’ve invested in.

    Here are some thoughts on what I’ve been wearing for the past 4 months:

    Profile Fleece
    As mentioned above, its styled like a motorcycle jacket, with micro fleece on the interior and a smooth exterior that enables it to easily layer under a hard shell. Relatively thin for the warmth it provides, it rolls up tight and takes up much less space in a pack than a “traditional” fleece. It’s been an essential insulating layer for me both in the frigid winters of northern China and Tibet, as well as the occasional Thai bus that has set its air conditioning for arctic freeze. I also appreciate the hidden chest pocket which I constantly used to safely stash my passport.

    Asylum Jacket
    The hood of this storm shell blends seamlessly into a high wrap-around collar, which provides that little bit of extra protection from the elements. The hood was designed to be helmet compatible, so it layers well over a wool cap, but its light enough to be worn without insulation underneath in tropical downpours. Hmm… The matte finish on the jacket doesn’t resist the grime of travel all that well. Over the past few months, daily wear has caused it to develop a permanent dark mystery layer in a few places.

    Base 2 Wool Shirt
    Made from finely spun merino, this shirt has made me a true believer in the wonders of wool. It somehow regulates body temperatures, so that it provides a surprising amount of warmth for its weight in colder climes, yet is breezier than cotton in heat. It naturally wicks sweat and tends to resist odor. This shirt comes with a small side pocket that blends into the seams - useful for room keys, for instance. Since it dries much more quickly than my other shirts, its been my daily wear ever since Thingyan has started. Hmm… The seam in one particular area is starting to come loose, though it hasn’t gotten any worse in the past 2 months.

    Cargo Pants
    I wanted a basic pair of cotton khaki trousers, but even here Nau has exceeded my expectations with little extras. They mixed just a touch of spandex into the fabric, so that the pants stretch nicely for more athletic endeavors. I’ve hiked up steep trails in the Tiger Leaping Gorge and played pick-up soccer in Laos in these these trousers and never once did they impede my movement. The cargo pockets have been sewn into the seams so they blend into the profile of the pants, which is appreciated since nothing screams BACKPACKER! like jarring, slapped-on cargo pockets. Hmm… I doubt there’s anything that Nau could do to solve this problem, but these pants are now sporting multiple stains from eating greasy street food that just will not come out.

    Nau also interacts with their constituents by holding regular contests where people can send in pictures of themselves sporting Nau clothing.

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    Guess which satisfied customer won a merino polo this month?