For six days I lived in a camper on the back of a 1990 pick-up truck, driving around on logging roads from deep forest to bright ocean, seeing what Victoria Island is all about with someone who knew it like the back of his hand. Before I left Hampi, Sam and I had discussed the possibility of doing a long road trip this fall – Vancouver to Panama – so we decided to do a trial run before I went back to the East Coast. This is how I ended up in British Columbia less than a week after setting foot on North American soil.
We started the journey in Victoria, a charming city with some classic architecture, a thriving port, delicious soft-serve, and, most importantly for us, Sam’s shack of goodies – two old VW vans, two 4×4’s that need some work, a couple surfboards, and countless tools, it was a window into a resourceful man’s world that I’d only heard about from Sam and would experience in the upcoming days. We grabbed what we needed and, after a few key grocery stops, left civilization behind.
Most of our trip was spent in the car, which probably sounds a lot more boring than it actually was. This was a test of road trip compatibility after all. We drove a ton, zigzagging across the southern half of Vancouver Island. I got very used to bumping slowly along gravel logging roads, swerving around potholes and letting the giant trucks hauling tree trunks have the right of way. We chatted, we listened to music, and I stared out the window, endlessly entertained by the gorgeous Pacific Northwest scenery.
The weather matched our route perfectly. It was overcast with a misty rain for our hikes in two old growth forests, first to Canada’s Gnarliest Tree and then to Sam’s favorite tree, which has to be the biggest tree I’ve ever seen – it was sprouting full size trees as branches. These forests have been around much longer than any of us; they are impressive, spiritual places that reminded me just how small we really are in this vast world. Then when we reached the west coast the sun came out to welcome us to the ocean. We had perfect weather for our Tofino day, which we thoroughly enjoyed by parking the camper in a lot right on the beach so we could cook and eat breakfast with an ocean view. Tofino was already Day 4 of our trip and the most time we spent in a town; after our beach breakfast we went to the Roy Henry Vickers gallery – a gorgeous collection by this acclaimed local artist – and the Tofino Brewing Company for a tasting flight.
Each night we camped at a different site. The first night we were seaside at Port Renfrew, the second on Lake Cowichan, the third at an official campsite in Ucluelet (with showers!), the fourth at a new site on Kennedy Lake, and the fifth on Salt Spring Island. While they all had their own charm, and were really pretty, my favorite by far was the fourth night. We were the only people in this lovely brand new campsite. We played our new favorite radio station loudly and had a fire going late into the night. Attempting to find our way out the next day, lost deep in nameless logging roads, we saw a logging chopper land (apparently a rarity judging by how excited Sam was) before stopping to ask a man for directions. He happened to be a very talented carver and showed us some of his projects, including an orca whale that had a baby orca inside it that could be lowered down by a rope, and a figure that would support the roof of his house. His work was beautiful and we were happy to have had the privilege of speaking with him about it.
Along with just enjoying the incredible scenery the trip was a lesson in self-efficiency. I learned that in Canada firewood is not purchased but cut up with a chainsaw on the side of the road. I then learned how to chop said wood with an ax and build a better fire. I also learned how to drive an old stick shift truck with a camper on the back, play a djembe drum in sync with Sam’s acoustic guitar, and new ways to cook salmon and bacon-wrapped halibut. Every night we parked at a new site and set to work making a fire and cooking dinner together – we cooked some great meals in that camper – and then hung out late into the night in the warmth of the flames. It was a great way of life.
At the end of my trip I was sad to return to a city. Vancouver Island is truly gorgeous and a perfect place to live a simple life out of a camper, wandering around at will. I can’t thank Sam enough for inviting me up to his home and adventuring around with me.
Going back to San Francisco I had conflicting feelings. When I left I knew that I would return one day to live for a long time. After dreaming about moving there for 15 years and having the best time of my life while I lived there, I had developed the feeling that SF was my place. And then that feeling was confirmed as I saw other cities around the world and still maintained a love for SF. So naturally I was worried that I was setting myself up for trouble. Would I be able to leave once I returned? Or once I set foot back in the city I saw as my place would I want to forsake my plan to continue traveling and settle back into a new version of my old life?
At the same time, I was looking forward to it. I was about to return to my place as my enhanced self, and even better I was about to see all my close friends and family who still lived there. The anticipation was palpable.
Both the worry and excitement stemmed from a strong love for the city. So imagine my surprise when, after just three days, I was ready to get the hell out of there.
It felt so strange to be back. The city still looked like San Francisco but it didn’t feel like it. Something had shifted. I don’t want to repeat the conversation that everyone is having about the gentrification of SF, but suffice it to say that I felt it was no longer the city I had idolized since I was 8 years old. It’s hard to express what exactly it was – I could talk about any of the usual suspects like the unavoidable homeless situation or tech industry dominance – but in the end it comes down to a feeling. In the year I was away, we, San Francisco and I, had grown in different directions.
Being back around talk about rent prices, office life, and IPOs was jarring. There were times I went silent and just observed the conversation around me. It wasn’t just an inability to contribute but a feeling of distance. The subject matter was so vastly different from what I had grown used to and, in all honesty, not something I missed. I had spent a year talking to people who found value in experience not in the workforce, and it’s not that either one is better than the other it’s just a difference of opinion. I had chosen the experience, removed myself from the workforce, and fallen in love with that decision. Now that I was back in that world I could see just how divergent I felt.
I was happy I had planned the trip to wander around Vancouver Island for 6 days. I needed to get out of there, and the first night sitting next to a campfire on a random beach underneath the stars I felt more like myself than I had the whole week. It was a necessary break from the shock of returning.
When I went back to SF the second time I felt much better. This could partially be because the first week back was such a whirlwind of seeing people, trying to say hi to everyone I possibly could while I was in town (something I did to myself and in no way regret), and this time I was much more low key. But I think it also has to do with expectations. I had gotten the initial “this isn’t what I thought it would be like” out of the way and was okay with the fact that I did not want to be there. I was even happy about it; if I had still felt such a strong connection to the city then it would have been much harder to leave again. How things turned out, I have no doubts in my mind about staying away for a couple more years. It made the nomadic choice easier to accept that I thought it would.
Having said all that, I am incredibly happy I went back to San Francisco en route to Vermont. I couldn’t imagine not having seen my SF friends when I returned to the US and I had a fantastic time catching up with them. I was able to celebrate my birthday and my friend’s birthday in the same week with tons of friends at some old favorite places and with food I didn’t even know I’d missed (BBQ and tacos); I got to experience some of the best parts of wedding planning with my sister and her fiance (a catering tasting and dress shopping); I played laser tag in the streets of the Marina to celebrate the big 3-0 with the craziest twins I know (it was as fun as it sounds); and from brunches, lunches, and dinners to late nights at apartments I got to be a part of my friends’ lives again. It was everything I wanted my time in town to be and I thank you all for welcoming me back with open arms.
I know I have to write a series of “I’m back in the US” posts – what I’ve been up to since I got back, final analyses of my pre-departure decisions and how they worked out, responses to some of the frequently asked questions I’ve gotten, and summaries of what it’s like to travel like I just did – but whenever I try to sit down and write them my mind goes blank. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, I have tons to say, I just have a hard time putting it into words. I am not sure why, but I have a theory.
It reminds me of what I’ve left behind. The way I returned to the States was busy. I was in Arizona for three days, San Francisco for five days, Vancouver Island for six days, San Francisco again for five more days, then Jersey City, where I’ve been for over two weeks now but broken up by going in and out of New York City to see friends. When people heard this plan they realized that even though I’d returned, I hadn’t left travel behind just yet. I will do that starting next weekend when I move up to Vermont. Which, ironically, is exactly one year after I moved out of my San Francisco apartment. So I guess you could say that I spent 300 days out of the country but 1 year traveling.
Being on the go and seeing so many familiar faces I thought had done wonders for my adjustment, but now I think it was just a distraction that allowed me to put off facing the decision I had made to return. It’s been wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but now that the bouncing around is almost over I am finally starting to process where I am and my next moves. And I’m anxious to get moving again already.
The thing about culture shock, or whatever you would call the depressing feeling of being home, is that it comes out of nowhere. One moment everything feels normal, like I’m back in the life I knew so well before I left, and the next I’m hiding in a bathroom with tears running down my cheeks unsure why I feel so uncomfortable, out of place, and alone. It’s not something that hits fast and strong, an immediate adjustment that can be pinpointed and processed, but something that lurks underneath the surface and comes out at times obviously and other times subtly. It’s a slow process, one that right now doesn’t have a clear end in sight. It’s unexpected. It’s difficult. And worst of all, it’s entirely personal. I can try to talk about it with other travelers, most can relate to it in some way, but how it affects us all is different. Ultimately I feel like it’s something I have to deal with on my own. Which is ironically one of the things I’ve been missing – my life the past year has been so on my own that this much coordination to see people, even the ones I care so much about, can be oddly suffocating.
Plus there’s this odd feeling of uncertainty that the last year even happened. It’s like some distant dream that I have to keep reminding myself was real. Sometimes I just sit and try to remember where I was two, four, eight months ago. Having this blog has been an amazing help – I’ll read old posts and have proof that I did that or I was there.
So I will get it together and write those posts I mentioned up front, and I promise they will be more positive than this one turned out. But I had to be honest and acknowledge how hard this transition really can be. It’s led to a few nights of insomnia and lots of time looking at Kayak’s “Explore” feature. Hopefully getting this out there, writing and posting what is actually very hard to make public, will clear my mind and make way for the posts that are much more fun for everyone. Until then, I’ll be reading “coping with coming home” articles.
The morning I left Fukuoka I was nervous, but only slightly. Going to the airport to board a flight to Seoul felt like just another leg in the journey. Maybe it was the hangover dulling my senses, but despite my mind knowing that this was the end of my trip my emotions were playing catch up. And man did they catch up.
It happened when I was waiting at the gate in the Seoul airport (such a nice airport) and the destination name came up on the screen: LOS ANGELES. Oh my god I’m flying to Los Angeles. California. United States. My mind went into a tailspin, my heart started pounding in my chest, which felt like it was supporting the weight of a 300-pound man, and my eyes welled with tears.
“What have I done? I’m still in Seoul, I could just walk out of the airport right now. I don’t need my luggage right?” The loudspeaker announced that boarding had begun for a flight to Amsterdam. “I’ve never been to Amsterdam, that sounds nice, maybe I can sneak onto that plane instead.” Wanderlust combined with panic and every fiber in my being wanted to go the opposite direction of Los Angeles.
I took a few deep breaths and tried to calm myself. As boarding began I sat frozen in my seat, waiting for the seemingly endless line to die down (it was an Airbus with 80 rows, so boarding took quite a while). The screen flashed FINAL BOARDING in bold red letters. The line was down to a trickle that ended next to my seat. It was time.
I gathered all my strength and told myself that it would be ok. I was making the right decision. The world was not ending, it would still be there when I returned one day.
Despite the fact that I was on the most luxurious flight of my life, I couldn’t sleep more than an hour out of the total 10, something that was now very out of character for me with my vast experience of sleeping on all manner of transportation. It could have been due to the fact that this “overnight” flight was really “day to night” in Japan time, but I think my mind just couldn’t shut down. Finally the plane switched to morning mode and I watched out the window as we approached and flew over the city of Los Angeles, a place I had known well before, a place I almost moved to instead of traveling, that I now looked at as a stranger wondering how I could have considered such an exchange.
Stupefied is probably the best word to describe my expression as I walked through LAX, from picking up my luggage and going through customs to checking it in for my domestic flight to Phoenix. English was everywhere, I understood everyone, and everyone was so surprisingly friendly. I underestimated my countrymen’s kindness.
Waiting in LAX I turned back on my cell phone service. I called my mom. I was on American soil. I promptly received emails from a few family members welcoming me home and being thankful for my safe return. I was suddenly contactable at all times. I turned off my phone and napped for an hour on a bench in the terminal.
I slept the entire flight from LA to Phoenix, a necessary nap before the long night ahead. When I arrived in Phoenix a whole new nervousness took over – I was about to surprise my best friends. Only Kwaz knew that I had landed in the Phoenix airport an hour before everyone else and was hiding in baggage claim. I saw my friends come down the escalator, quickly grab their bags, and head out the door to drive off in Jen’s car. So, heart pounding, I walked out to meet them.
The minute they turned around I knew I had made the right decision. The shrieks, exclamations of joy, plus the occasional expletive, and endless succession of hugs were so much more than I had imagined. I thought back to my reasoning for coming back now instead of waiting until the summer when I had to be in Vermont – that since I had to come back anyway I might as well do it in a fun way – and mentally patted myself on the back for making this decision.
The thing is, I didn’t leave the US to run away from my life there. I had a fantastic life. I just wanted to enrich it, see more of what was out there, and grow as an individual. But I had plenty to return to, and these girls and the weekend that ensued were a huge part of that. The panic that I experienced in Seoul quickly faded into a memory. I was back, at least for now, and it was time to party.
Japan is a fascinating country. I went curiously, having always had a desire to see what it was like there, but also unexpectedly. Along with the fact that I didn’t know I was going to be there until a month before I went, all I knew once I arrived was that I’d be there for at least two weeks with Matt, but I had no idea what we’d see or where we’d go. I ended up staying for a month and seeing more than just the normal Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka highlight reel. I can only thank Matt for convincing me to go to that wonderful place. Looking back now, Japan has become one of my favorite countries of the trip.
When people ask me what I thought of Japan I describe it as so forward and so backward at the same time, 2080 and 1880 living simultaneously. Parts of the country are so modern, from 9-story glowing signs adorning the sides of glass towers to the most time-accurate trains running up to 200 mph. These parts live in harmony next to historic buildings and a rich cultural history and appreciation that permeates the entire experience of being there. People dressed in traditional clothes wander past a temple into a covered shopping arcade, literally crossing the boundaries of time. At times I was surprised by some of the cultural differences, like the inequality of gender when I was at an after-work bar surrounded by only men in suits. And then there’s the overall quirkiness of Japan, like the obsession with video game centers and toy stores.
The people are incredible, even though most don’t speak English. Despite the language barrier they still went out of their way in friendless and helpfulness, like the woman from our ryokan who drove us to and made sure we got on the right bus or the woman at my hostel in Fukuoka who made fresh miso soup and onigiri every morning for all the guests staying there, even though she was a guest herself.
The language was also interesting. Remember that scene in Lost in Translation where the commercial director says 30 seconds worth of Japanese and the translator says, “He said ‘turn to camera'” and Bill Murray responds, “That’s all he said?” It’s so true. Every time I walked into a restaurant or out everyone there said a long string of Japanese that I think was just “hi how many people” upon entering and “thank you bye” when leaving. And it wasn’t until my last night that someone finally explained to me the difference between “arigatou ” and “arigatou gozaimasu,” thank you and the formal version of thank you that I should have been saying all along. They love to throw “gozaimasu” around attached to other phrases too.
Unfortunately Japan is not really a backpacker-friendly country, especially during cherry blossom season. If I do return one day I’ll make sure to plan ahead: get a train pass and book accommodation. It did work out in the end, but it would have saved us from a lot of stress to have had a plan. For this reason I’d probably avoid it on another low-budget-spontaneous-type trip.
Bus rides though were a breath of fresh air. After my frustration traveling around the rest of Asia, having a reliable timetable and functioning bus stations was a relief. This was my main form of transportation around Japan and honestly pretty pleasant, and much more affordable than the train. Plus the cleanest rest stops I’ve ever been in and, of course, genial, helpful drivers.
The food is also probably my favorite on the trip. Vietnam would be tied, and definitely wins in the affordability category, but the sheer variety of Japanese food – donburi, sushi, tempura, noodles, tonkatsu, onigiri, hot pot, skewers – and the fact that all of it is delicious tips the win in Japan’s direction. It also wins worst dish of my trip for the intestine yakitori. I would even eat tarantula again if I had to pick between that and intestine.
All of this combined with the beauty of the country and the energy of the cities hopefully conveys why I found Japan to be not simply great but also captivating. I definitely will return one day.
It was April 16th and I was checking into my final hostel in Fukuoka. In the “Previous Destination” line on the check-in form I casually wrote “Aso.” I moved on to the next line, “Next Destination” and quickly wrote in “USA.” Then I had a minor panic attack.
There it was, the permanent written evidence of this decision I had made. Next Destination: USA. I was going back.
I had spent the weeks leading up to and since this decision constantly wavering on whether or not I was ready for this moment. I knew I was or I wouldn’t have gotten the ticket to go, but seeing it there in writing made the prospect of returning to my native country suddenly real, and really terrifying.
300 days around the world. That sounded pretty damn good. But once I decided this nomadic life was the right life for me, no day of returning would probably ever feel comfortable, even if it was a nice round number and I had the best possible coming back scenario. I was still terrified of going back, of ending this incredible adventure, of giving in to going home.
But it wasn’t giving in. It was a conscious decision so different from anything I expected returning to the United States would be. It was a decision to continue being nomadic for longer than I originally envisioned. This return home was not the go home and find a job mindset, but the recharge and set out on a new adventure mindset. This was a huge change in my life plans and perspective. In this way, returning to the US was actually the beginning of a new adventure as much as it was the end of this one. End of a chapter to start a new one.
So it may have said Next Destination: USA, but it did not say Final Destination. That was still a question mark.
After I checked into my hostel I set up my laptop in the common space to take care of some business like writing down the details of my flights and attempting to blog, which horribly failed in my distracted mental state. Two guys were at the table next to me talking to the hostel receptionist about choosing to go out for ramen instead of partaking in the cheap hostel Thai dinner (which did sound like a great deal) and I casually commented that I was going the same route. My last night in Japan could not be spent eating Thai food; I needed one last Japanese meal.
We got to talking and I ended up hanging out all night with Loïc and Nicolas. We went for tonkotsu ramen and a large Asahi at the riverside yatai – a local tradition – and then picked up a bottle of sake to enjoy on the rooftop of our hostel. It was my last night, we had to celebrate.
When the bottle was empty we ventured back downstairs and were joined by Tom for whiskey and whiskay (a whiskey sake combination that I steered clear of due to my early flight). It was one last accidental late drinking night with new friends from different parts of the world, and it was exactly how this trip should have ended. It’s those moments with the people I’ve encountered that I cherish most. Thanks guys for sending me off right.
Waiting for the train in Hospet, my former Japan resident current travel companion told me to try to hike “Mount Ahhso” if I had time. I felt younger than my 27 years when I laughed at what sounded like Mount Asshole and made him repeat the name a few times before he finally spelled it out for me. A-S-O. Mount Aso. Got it.
Fast forward to Fukuoka and me planning my final jaunt around Kyushu. I knew I wanted to get in one more mountain stop – a small village and a good hike, like all the places I’d loved so much in the past year – so I looked up his recommendation and happily discovered that Aso was located on the north part of the island in a place that would logically complete my Kyushu loop. Perfect.
I took a local train between Kumamoto and Aso. I remembered the train ride from Inle Lake to Kalaw and how I’d fallen for that town, and even though this train ran much smoother than that one did the romantic feeling and pretty scenery assured me that I had made the right decision in going to Aso. This was confirmed when we pulled into a small station and upon exiting I could see what looked like the whole town in front of me with the volcano billowing smoke in the not-so-far distance. I forgot to mention – Mount Aso, or Asosan, is the largest active volcano in Japan. Unfortunately this billowing smoke was not a good omen for my hike; it meant that I couldn’t go to the crater, the main attraction. There were still other hiking routes though up and around the mountain so I was not deterred.
I walked the block and a half to Aso Base Backpackers, which quickly became one of my favorite hostels of the trip. It felt like a modern lodge, with a wood-burning fireplace, a fully stocked and beautiful kitchen with an assortment of teas and coffees (my favorite was the apple tea), and a variety of seating options from a large tree-trunk table to the distinctly Japanese raised section with a leg-oven table (you sit with your legs underneath a table that is covered by a blanket and has a heater hanging from the top – it keeps you really warm). I went over the trail map with the receptionist and mapped out a plan for the next day. Even though the crater was closed I could hike from the hostel up the mountain, around a loop trail to see other inactive craters, and back down in about seven hours he estimated.
It only took me 4.5. That is, once I got going. I woke up the next morning to slanting, cold rain. I waited an hour with my Japanese breakfast sandwich (a soft-boiled egg inside an onigiri, delicious) and coffee until I gave up and went for it anyway, as bundled up as possible.
The hike up was eerie and mystical in a way, since I was walking entirely in cloud cover. Once in a while it would part and I would see a cow standing nearby in a field or a green grass-covered cone of a former volcano or a glimpse of the valley down below. Because I could barely see 10 feet in front of me I missed the turn for the path I meant to be hiking and ended up walking on road all the way up, but I chose to look at this mistake as a good mistake – I got to see a larger variety of scenery and hike up a different side of the mountain than I would hike down.
When I reached the top the weather was at its worst. I was actually in a cloud and it was seriously windy. I stopped by the visitors center and the woman said it would be that way all day. I asked about the loop hike and she said, “No, dangerous!” I went anyway. I didn’t climb up a mountain for nothing, I wanted to see some craters.
I couldn’t see anything. The path was a series of steep staircases that led to nothing but mist. The wind was so strong at one point that I had to sit down so I didn’t get blown off the side. I had no idea how far I would have fallen since I couldn’t see more than a couple of feet around me, if that. I had to admit defeat and climb back down. This actually was dangerous.
Once I got back to level ground the clouds parted, which at first was a frustrating tease now that I could have completed the loop, but then I got to see what I really came for: a huge puff of dark gray smoke rose out of the active crater. At least Asosan gave me this incredible sight as a reward for my trek. I had never been so close to an active volcano before; there’s something really mesmerizing about watching smoke pour out of a mountain, like watching fire burn.
I cheerily walked back down the path I had meant to take up, singing songs to myself and sometimes running to change it up a bit. The sun came out and I could see Aso town down below. The landscape was gorgeous.
The rest of my time in Aso was exactly the relaxing experience I wanted it to be. I went to the onsen (and luckily did not get kicked out for my tattoos), wrote at the cozy leg-oven table in my alpaca gear, and had my two final vending-machine-ordered meals at a local restaurant slash market (udon and katsu don).
I knew that the next day I would go back to Fukuoka and the day after that I would fly back to the United States. I looked back at my last week in Kyushu and was proud of myself for arranging the perfect assortment of locations. I was going out the right way.
Before I left Japan I wanted to get in one more architectural site. Kumamoto city was a necessary junction between Nagasaki and Mt. Aso, and it happened to be home to one of the most impressive castles in the country, so I planned a one day stopover to see it.
It is a pretty incredible thing to see an early 17th century castle in the center of a modern city. Kumamoto city looks pretty much like any other city in Japan: clean streets, an efficient network of bus and tram transportation, temples interspersed amongst low- and mid-rise blocks, and a pedestrian-only covered center of town. But then, peering above or around these modern conveniences, is a monument from a time long ago.
I walked from my hostel through this 21st century scene and up a gentle slope to the entrance of the castle. Crossing the gate into the castle grounds felt like stepping back in time. The foundations rose around me like giant stone waves, arcing at first gently and then steeply to ward off potential intruders and protect the wonderfully crafted wood structure perched above. The castle itself is rightfully renowned; its tiered construction and sweeping rooftops are the archetypal Japanese style. They portray beauty and stability, pleasing in arrangement and visual character.
Inside the castle felt very much like the Hiroshima castle experience. The first floor had a well thought out exhibit about the castle’s history and construction, but as I climbed up the exhibits drastically dropped in interest and content. By the third floor it was just pictures of other castles around Japan. The top again became the main attraction with its sweeping views out over Kumamoto to the mountains beyond. Unfortunately it was an overcast, drizzling day so I couldn’t see my next stop, Mt. Aso, in the distance, as you usually could.
I ventured up the second, lower tower and actually had a few minutes up top by myself. Not as many people seem to climb this side. The view of the surroundings were not as good but the draw here was the ability to look at the main tower from a halfway up point.
Aside from the main castle tower I went into the Honmaru Goten Palace building, where I saw a unique kitchen set up and a pristine long hall where the daimyo would receive visitors, which culminated in a gorgeously decorated room for the most important guests. The gold panels and colorful paintings made my jaw drop. I exited the palace the long way, walking down and around the stone walls and remaining turrets, until I reached the bottom and got one last good look at the impressive castle up above.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to get to Kumamoto, but if it works in your route it’s worth a day to see this beautiful piece of Japanese architectural history.