I had an idea before I left for a potential photo project that didn’t really pan out. I wanted to take a picture of where I woke up every day of the trip. I thought it could result in an amusing compilation to flip through, but I quickly realized two things: first, that remembering to take a picture and doing it well first thing in the morning is not a job made for me, a person who needs a mental pep talk to get out of bed before 10; second, that seeing feet and a dorm bed shot after shot would not be an interesting portrayal of my daily life, it would be flat out boring.
So I shifted gears and decided to just take pictures of some of the more interesting places I woke up. Now going back through what I have, most of these happen to be hammocks or transportation, with the occasional odd shot of a salt hotel, boat deck, or bamboo hut. I admit, it wasn’t as fully fleshed out as the Included Food project was, but it was just a secondary fun experiment so I’m posting it anyway. I think the abundance of hammocks in South America versus huts in Asia still accurately captures a part of my experience. Also of note are the hostel pods instead of plain bunk beds – they created at least a semblance of a private space, which was welcomed after so many 10 or more bed dorm rooms. Maybe this is why the capsule hotel in Tokyo felt so normal to me – in fact I enjoyed the tiny solo room – instead of claustrophobic like other people find them who haven’t spent almost a year in dorms. It is amazing the things you get used to being on the road for so long.
Here are some of the places I called “my bed” for at least a night.
Before I left I thought about doing some sort of photo project to consistently document my trip. I’d watched epic selfie videos and drooled over wanderlust Instagrams like everyone else, but knew I didn’t have the technical or creative insight to make something at that level. I departed not knowing what I would photograph, what theme would be the best or most fun way to chronicle my year. Then I happened to snap a quick picture of my airplane meal, my first meal of the trip, and I had a flash of inspiration that turned into a full-scale international photo project: I would photograph the included food I ate around the world.
This subject was not about the epic but the mundane, and that was what piqued my interest. It was a reflection of my daily life – this was the food I ate because I was a budget traveler who would eat anything I was given to save money – and hopefully would be a reflection of the locations as well. As a reminder, here’s some of what I wrote when this idea came to me:
I’ve been thinking about doing a sort of photo project on this trip. I want to focus on something(s) that is consistent but has variety within each place. … As I was handed my first of 4 airplane treats today (seriously they love to feed us) I quickly thought to snap a picture. Part of being a traveler on a budget is taking advantage of what’s included in any price you pay. Breakfast included is one of the things I look for when I book a hostel. It’s usually not stellar, but it can save a lot of money over time.
So I’m playing with the idea of taking a picture of all the “meals included” I get. I’m sure they’ll vary everywhere I end up, and it could turn out to be an interesting story of what different places think should be complimentary. Also, so many people document their food these days. Typically they show food that is pleasing to look at as well as tasty, and often from great but not inexpensive restaurants. This is sort of a play on that – I won’t be paying for pretty food, but here’s what I got. And maybe it won’t look worth documenting alone, but that isn’t really the point. I wouldn’t be photographing food for food porn but as more of a cultural experiment. Who knows, maybe every hostel in the world thinks rolls and sliced meats and cheese are breakfast. Or maybe what is offered will end up reflecting the location.
96 pictures later I’ve completed this culinary and anthropological photographic study. I have to say, I’m pretty pleased with the results. The driving force behind it – that the included meals were a reflection of location – turned out to be pretty accurate. Brazil had the best fruit, white bread rolls were standard in South America, omelets and pancakes appeared in Southeast Asia, and cornflakes were universal. Australasia didn’t believe in complimentary food in budget accommodation or transportation – there are only 7 pictures from New Zealand, 3 from the same place, and 4 from Australia, 2 from the same place.
The fundamental requirement for the meals I documented was food that was included in my accommodation or transportation that I ate because it would save me money so I wouldn’t have to buy a meal elsewhere. It was about the places I decided to stay and what they came with. If they had rolls with butter and jam available till noon, I ate that for breakfast and lunch so I didn’t have to waste money on other food. If there were multiple options I photographed each one, which is why some places have a few pictures to show the variety. In the case of America del Sur in Buenos Aires I just photographed the entire breakfast bar – it was unlike any other option I had the whole trip. I would always wait until all of the food was there to take the picture, which was sometimes hard in the places where breakfast was served at a leisurely pace and I had woken up starving.
I did not include food that was part of a package deal, like the Amazon or Fraser Island, because in paying for the tour I was also paying for the meals. I did not include food that was paid for in hotels when my family came because those were not places I chose to stay or would fit in my budget; I didn’t have to eat the included breakfast because I didn’t have to worry about paying for my meals. These meals were my choices as a backpacker – I can’t tell you how many times I would forgo a meal for hours knowing that my flight would give me something, or mornings I consumed instant coffee and cornflakes purely to fill my stomach for the first part of the day.
I decided to show these pictures unedited. I think the lighting is important to convey the sense of where and when I was, whether it’s sideways illumination from the airplane window, dull light from an early morning, or no light on an overnight bus. Something that was unexpectedly interesting to me about these pictures was the backgrounds. The table set-ups and airplane trays became just as important to me as the food itself.
So here it is, the final result of my Included Food Photo Project. If only I’d come up with a more inventive name…
Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten lots of destination-related questions. I love fielding these questions – I could talk about the places I went for days on end. Not that I don’t also love helping with backpack choices and solo travel tips, but the locations themselves are what drive us all.
So I figured why not post what I’ve responded to the question, “Where should I go?” It might be useful to other people and a good place to point friends to in the future. Plus I just can’t imagine answering the other most-asked question, “What was your favorite place?” How could it ever be possible to pick one place? I’ve been able to narrow it down to some highlights but even then I feel like I’m leaving out so much. This is probably the closest I can come to any kind of “top places” list.
So here they are, my “where you should go” recommendations:
I will always tell people to go to South America. I spent three and a half months there and personally preferred it to the other regions. As I traveled I found myself constantly wondering how expensive flights were from Asia to South America, and this wonder has not ceased now that I’ve returned. Actually South America is part of the reason I came back to the US – it was unreasonable to go straight from Japan so I planned to go by way of the US. Some of the places that I recommend looking into are:
- Colombia. I will never stop loving Colombia and it’s one of the first places I want to go back to. The Caribbean Coast is gorgeous and hot, the cities are fun, and the mountains great to explore. It has lots to offer and some of the friendliest people.
- The Amazon. The Amazon in Brazil, just outside of Manaus, were 6 of the best days of my trip. It’s not an easy itinerary, at least the one we did since we slept in hammocks in the jungle and caught our own dinners (piranha, peacock bass, etc.), but it’s a very cool experience. Plus if you go here then you can go through Rio, which is a fantastic city.
- Buenos Aires. One of my favorite cities in the world. If you want a more urban trip definitely go here – drum shows, theater performances, weekend markets, insane nightlife, delicious food. There’s also some low-key escapes depending on how long you’re there, like the Tigre and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
- The Salt Flats in Bolivia and the Atacama Desert in Chile. If you want otherworldly nature go here. The Salt Flats is a three-day tour through landscapes that don’t look like they should be real, and the desert is a Mars-like playground for sandboarding, hiking, biking, and stargazing.
- Machu Picchu. This is a bit of a bonus since I did not go there on this RTW trip – I was there in 2012 with friends – but it is still one of my top South America experiences so it just didn’t feel right to leave it off this list. We did the 4 day/3 night Inca Trail through SAS travel – our guides knew everything and told stories along the way, we had really good food, and the hike was the perfect mixture of challenging and fun. Plus Cusco is a great place to spend a few days acclimatizing.
Having said all that, you can’t go wrong in Asia either, of course. A lot of people are intrigued by the extreme difference of the culture in Asia and I was right there with them. Some of my favorite experiences happened in Asia. Here are my recommendations:
- The Temples of Angkor/Siem Reap, Cambodia. Another one of the best weeks of my trip. The architecture is stunning, and spending your day on a tuktuk riding past ruins is pretty amazing. Siem Reap has a fun streak to it on Pub Street but it’s really all about Angkor here. I would love to go back to Cambodia and get to Koh Rong on the coast, every backpacker’s favorite beach. Also depending on the length of your trip you could add Laos, which has great outdoor activities to offer but wouldn’t be the first place in Asia I would recommend. I do want to go back though; I was pleasantly surprised by that country.
- Myanmar. Like everyone says, go now, before tourism totally changes it. This country just opened up a few years ago and you can already see the changes, and how it’s not ready to handle them yet. But the people are the kindest I met anywhere and the scenery is beautiful. It will be vastly different from home though so that has to be something you’re okay with.
- I hesitate to recommend Northern Thailand because I had a really different experience there at a festival, but the time I spent in Chiang Mai was great and with everything I’ve heard about Pai it’s one of the places I most want to get to next time I’m there. Most people I met traveling in Southeast Asia put this at the top of their list. If you happen to be planning a Southeast Asia trip in February go to Shambhala.
- Another qualified recommendation is Vietnam. Some people love it, some hate it. I had a different time there due to a family visit but if you’re curious about it then it’s worth checking out. Hanoi was good and Halong Bay/Lan Ha Bay were spectacular. Plus it had the best cheapest food and coffee of my entire trip.
- Japan, especially Tokyo. Fascinating culture, energetic cities, gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, efficient travel, and the best food, there’s no way to go wrong in Japan. Tokyo was actually my favorite, despite the popular opinion that Kyoto is best, for its quirkiness, modernity, and variety of activities. If you have time try to make it to the island of Kyushu – it’s much more low-key but still wonderfully Japanese.
Lastly, New Zealand. Of the Australasia portion of my trip I preferred New Zealand. The scenery is unbeatable, the adventures are endless, and the atmosphere is so chill it’s hard to ever want to leave. I still play with the idea of moving to Wanaka for a while. Go to Wanaka! I love that place. And the Abel Tasman Coast Track. And Milford Sound.
If anyone has any more questions about locations (or anything) just ask! I love talking travel, obviously, and am more than happy to help if I can.
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.