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.
With my departure from Australia I ended Part 2 of my RTW trip. I always knew that the Australasia portion would be a familiar breather in the middle of disparate South America and Asia, and it was part of the reason I included it where I did. A recharge if you will, with modern amenities and plenty of beach time. Plus I had always wanted to go there, and that was the whole premise of this trip – go to the places I’ve always wanted to go.
So you can imagine my surprise when I left Australasia feeling disappointed, lost, and questioning myself. I had just come from the best travel of my life in South America and I missed everything I had experienced there, from the locations to the people. New Zealand still had enough of a new place feel to keep me going, but Australia was unexpectedly hard for me. The tours, the kids, the prices, the beaches – it all came together to make me miss the unpredictable world I’d left behind.
When I think back to my month in Australia none of it is really negative. Noosa was the low point, but it was short-lived. Whitsundays, Byron Bay, Melbourne, and Sydney were all great locations that I would happily recommend to everyone. But there’s something about the impression of the overall trip that left me with a bad taste.
But I’ve come to realize that Australia served a purpose. I now know without a doubt what kind of travel I want to be doing on this trip. Organized tours and giant party hostels may have been great when I was in a different place in life, but where I’m at right now they are not for me. This was important to learn as I still have a few months of travel left and those types of things will not be left behind in Australasia.
Having said that, I still want to go back to these countries. I would love to go back to Wanaka for a season, with a few trips to the last places I didn’t make it to on my first NZ round. And I already have a route in mind for a 3 month Australia road trip. I bet you can guess none of it will be on the East Coast. I want to go to the West Coast and the interior desert; I think if I had done that trip I would have left highly satisfied. But everyone should see the East Coast once in their lives, and it’s probably better I did it before I had even more distance between myself and the other travelers, so I don’t regret the route I took at all.
Now that I’ve separated myself from those two months I look back fondly. Really I can’t imagine regretting any part of this year, and if I thought I would regret it then I would have left much earlier. There’s no reason to stay anywhere that doesn’t feel right. And I am happy to have learned more about the places and ways I want to be travelling; it is a valuable lesson for me.
So with that, I said goodbye to the familiar and embarked on Part 3. Asia would be a whole new experience with tougher language barriers and spicier street food meals, and I couldn’t wait to see what it was all about.
I had to fit in one last road trip before I left Australasia. Everyone said to go see the Great Ocean Road (GOR) if I had time (advice I will echo to future travelers). Not only did I have time, but I was lucky enough to have a friend with a car and a free Monday who was willing to take me on a day trip. Josi and I were going out on the road again.
As per usual with our road trip history in NZ, the weather was pretty bad. But we went for it anyway; this was the one day we had together for the trip so we were going rain or shine. I’m happy we did.
The drive is beautiful, although I’m sure more so in sunny weather. About halfway down we took a turn off onto the road where we were most likely to see koalas. Luckily there were no cars behind us as we crept down the road scanning the treetops. Then Josi hit the breaks: “koala!” We jumped out of the car and sure enough she had spotted one way up high. As I took pictures it clearly looked down at us. I jumped for joy – I finally saw an Aussie animal in the wild! And a koala, which are notoriously hard to spot.
When we could tear ourselves away we continued at our snails pace and this time it was my turn to yell out “koala!” This one was not happy we were making noises in its direction and it openly complained about t. Koalas make the strangest sound! It’s rare to hear it as a tourist so I felt really lucky. We were also lucky because this one wasn’t alone; another was up in the same tree and a mom and baby were across the street.
We moved on again, already happy with our 5 koalas, when we saw a few cars pulled over up ahead – 2 more koalas, another mom and baby. And this time there were kangaroos too! About half a dozen in a field just hanging out. More animals! I was skipping around like a giddy child. Another couple hundred meters and we had to stop again – 4 more koalas, and active ones. We saw one jump and climb up a tree (and stop for a pee break as I was filming him), and a couple had some lunch. They were all so close to the road. People were all around taking tons of pictures; I was right there with them. The next koala we saw we didn’t even stop for. We were up to 12 now. Even Josi was shocked, she’d never seen so many in a day. Later Gus, her fiancee, told us it was mating season, which explained why they were around and awake.
On our way back out the same road I saw a black kangaroo jumping around. At this point I was happy with the drive just for the animals; I finally saw them and not in a zoo. Seeing animals in the wild is always better.
We drove on, stopping for a quick fish and chips lunch (had to get one of those before I left), and made it to the first of the 12 Apostles just as the weather hit peak shittiness. We still got out and climbed down to the road. The tan cliff face and lone Apostle were imposing sites. This was my favorite vista of the drive. We were alone on the beach surrounded by the sheer awesomeness of Australia’s coastline. It was stunning even in the overcast misty rain.
It wasn’t much further to the main 12 Apostles visitor center, our final destination, which we shared with hoards of tourists. This was supposed to be the peak moment of the GOR but the strong wind, cold rain, and masses of people really took away from the experience. It was still impressive, I get why everyone goes here and still recommend stopping by, but we didn’t linger. We were also very disappointed with the visitor center: it was just a kiosk, no information on the Apostles at all. I googled them on our way out for at least a little history.
We turned around and drove back up to Josi’s. As we reached the end of the GOR we saw a huge rainbow; we were actually able to see where it ended in the ocean. To our chagrin it was too far out into the water to look for the gold, but to me it signaled a happy end to a great day trip.
It was so fun being back on the road with Josi for a day, a throwback to how we got to know each other in NZ. And beyond that, Josi and Gus welcomed me into their home, and I am so thankful to them both for their hospitality and their friendship. The night before the GOR drive I took the train out to Geelong to stay at their house so we could get up early the next day. Josi picked me up at the train station and we greeted each other with a huge hug. When we got to the house I was so excited to meet her fiancee Gus, who I’d heard so much about, and of course he was fantastic too. We all had dinner together and Josi and I finished off a bottle of wine catching up. It felt like I was staying with old friends who I just hadn’t seen in a while. On our way home the next night we picked up kangaroo burgers and made dinner together. Gus is an excellent gardener so I was treated to fresh veggies and salad picked right from the backyard to go with the burgers. It was a delicious meal.
I was sad to say bye to Josi and Gus that night; I really felt so welcome in their home. It’s a testament to how great they are and I’ll always remember them as some of the most kind-hearted friends I met on this trip. I would say I’m sad I don’t know if or when I’ll see them again but I don’t have to worry about that. Josi and Gus I haven’t forgotten – Burning Man 2016. See you there.