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.
BA was so incredible to me for 2 reasons: first, the city itself; second, the people I met there.
The city is beautiful. It’s Paris and New York City combined, with classic mid-rise buildings on tree-lined streets, shops and cafes along the ground level, and sculptures, fountains and parks around every corner. Graffiti is also around every corner, but in an artful not harmful way. Every neighborhood has its own feel and just walking the streets is an activity worthy of your time. People are active everywhere, from rollerblading in the park to running along Puerto Madero. And the food – incredible. Not just the delicious steaks but I had great salads, crepes, pulled pork and cheesesteak sandwiches, tacos (actually spicy ones!), and desserts. Then there’s the nightlife. Everything you’ve heard about BA nightlife is true and it still doesn’t prepare you for it. Live performances, DJ dance clubs, or chill local bars, it has something for everyone every night of the week.
BA has an energy and it is addictive. It’s not surprising that so many people visit and don’t leave. It has everything you could want in a city, but it’s more than what it can offer that makes it so special, it’s just the atmosphere. The kind of thing you have to experience to get. So go, experience it, and you’ll see what I mean.
The people I met in BA. Where to start? After being on the road for 3 months I was missing some normalcy in my interactions – having conversations that went beyond where you’re from and where you’re going, being able to message a friend to see what they’re up to today and create a spur of the moment plan, and just generally having people around who you’re comfortable with, who you can actually do nothing but sit on a couch with and still have a good time. I found these people in BA.
This group of solo travelers had all met at different points in their journies and I was lucky enough to be welcomed into their family. Travel times ranged from a few weeks to over a year, so somehow the timing just worked out that everyone was in BA staying at America del Sur. I haven’t ever so quickly felt so at home with a group of people before. We spent hours lounging together in the basement, cooked dinners together, had some crazy fun nights out, hung out in parks, explored the city, and experienced BA with each other.
My first night in BA I had one of the hardest moments of my trip so far: I was missing a close friend’s wedding. My friends and I came up with a plan to FaceTime the night of the rehearsal dinner so I could say hi to all of them together. I was at Alex’s apartment and these people I had just met made sure I had the wifi password, enough time before we went out, and a quiet place to talk. They saw it was important to me and helped me make it work. And then they helped cheer me up since of course I was sad I was missing this big event. I couldn’t have been in a better place for that weekend. That set the stage for the next 2 weeks of good times. When I left for Uruguay I was sad to go, but when I got back it was like I’d never left. I was greeted with big hugs and my plans for the weekend. That was the first night I had to go back to my hostel in Palermo instead of staying at America del Sur. When it was time to leave I said I had to go home. Tom responded, “You are home.” That’s how I felt. For 10 days, I had a home in this year of homelessness.
Goodbyes can be hard, and leaving BA was my hardest goodbye so far. Could it possibly have been even harder than leaving the US? 10 days in this amazing city felt as important to me as a year. When I left, I felt satisfied as a tourist, like I had seen and done all I wanted to, but sad just in life. Couldn’t that perfect combination of city and people last forever? My only comfort was that everyone had either left or was planning on leaving 3 days later. It was over for all of us. But these people will forever mean a lot to me. Thank you for being such a big part of making BA as special as it was.
I probably waited too long to write about Buenos Aires, but I never knew where to start. Do I start with what I did there, describing my actual visit to the city, or do I start with my answer to the question, “Why did you like Buenos Aires so much?”
These are two separate posts but one doesn’t make sense without the other, so I’ll start with what I did, in running list form. It might not be eloquent but I don’t know if I ever could get it to be. I’ll try to summarize.
Day 1 I arrived early in the morning from an overnight bus and 2 hours later I was on a walking tour of the city, arranged by my hostel America del Sur. I learned some BA history, saw the main tourist sites, and watched some tango. I was even coaxed into doing a tango move on stage for a photo opportunity. I changed money on Florida Street; my first experience with the Blue Market of BA (where you get almost double the normal exchange rate). I had asado dinner at the hostel, and while I was waiting sat with a group of incredibly welcoming travelers mostly from the UK and Australia. I ended up at a housewarming party with them – Alex’s Palermo apartment. My first night in BA, a Friday, and I was at someone’s apartment getting to know a great group of people. A welcomed night of normalcy in a stream of hostels and bars. Out till almost 4 am.
Day 2 I went to the La Boca neighborhood with three new friends I’d met the day before – Jessica, Juan and Tom. We wandered and took pictures of the Boca stadium and the colorful buildings and graffiti around Caminito. I had my first choripan sandwich: the Argentinian version of a German favorite, chorizo sausage on a roll with chimichurri sauce. That night I went to Fuerza Bruta with Jess and Tom; I’d gotten lucky when Kye needed to sell his ticket that morning and jumped on board last minute. Incredible, a must do for anyone in BA. When we got home we cooked dinner and joined the rest of the group to watch the fight on the big comfy couch in the basement. I was convinced to go to a birthday party in Palermo for one of the girls who works at the hostel. Unexpectedly chill bar, still got home at 4 am.
Day 3 was rainy but we braved the San Telmo Sunday Market anyway. I had lunch with a friend of a friend, Sam. It’s amazing how friend networks extend all over the world. I returned to the hostel, to the couch downstairs where inevitably I would find my new friends, the people I would come to call my BA family. You know what sounds nice? A good beer. Just a casual beer at a pub. Not Quilmes. Alex, Tom, Brendan, and I chilled at Gibralter for a while. We got back and Ana convinced us all to go to Club One. Minds blown. This club was nuts. Was it really Sunday?
Day 4 I wandered the city alone: Puerto Madero (another choripan); the Obeslik; Teatro Colón; El Alteneo, an old theater converted into a bookstore; the Congress building; back to Florida Street; home to San Telmo. I collapsed on the couch. Brendan, Tom, Will, and I made a delicious dinner and I had my first Fernet and Cola night. Thanks Andy for helping me adjust to this taste before BA. I’ve had enough Fernet to last me a lifetime now. Everyone went out together for La Bamba del Tiempo – a 20 person drum ensemble on stage. Amazing music, 1L drinks, lots of dancing. The show ended and the drummers led us on a street party parade. Cheap street beers along the way. We were all having the time of our lives. The party ended at a club; more drinks, lots more dancing, even more pictures. Could this night get any better? 5 am we got home, my wallet was gone. Shit. There goes my license. We got panchos (gross cheese-covered hot dogs).
The next day I woke up too soon after going to sleep with a miserable hangover. Off to Uruguay.
I returned two days later and had to go to my new hostel in Palermo. I missed America del Sur, so I went back to visit. Hung out with and unfortunately say bye to Tom, the first of the BA group to move on.
Friday. Productivity day. Blog posts to write, 401k funds to move, US dollars acquired in Uruguay to exchange. That night I met up with another friend of that same home friend for the Palermo pub crawl. New fun in a new neighborhood. Does any night ever end before 4:00 am?
Saturday. Is this Day 5 or 6? I don’t think Thursday really counts, so let’s call it 5. I slept well past hostel breakfast and treated myself to brunch outside in Palermo. It’s what you do there anyway. Ana came over and we played in Palermo park: we tried to join some group choreographed dancing (we were so lost) and attempted some rollerblading/skating. We didn’t fall! Victory wine and cheese for dinner, had back at America del Sur of course. Louise and Katrina from Mendoza were there now – what?! They had made friends with the same people I had now made friends with before they went to Mendoza. Of course. It was a special La Bamba del Tiempo night. Our traveler group and the hostel girls all went together. Too many drinks, one big blur.
Sunday it was back to America del Sur for everyone’s favorite sandwich shop, El Banco Rojo, and nursing our hangovers in Recoleta park. We wandered briefly through the Recoleta Sunday Market, and I got my Argentina bracelets with Ana’s help. Back to the hostel. Movies and take-out Chinese food for dinner. Bus back to Palermo with Alex; no Club One for us this time.
Monday it was time to be a tourist again. I met two nice Dutch girls at the hostel and we explored Recoleta cemetery together followed by empanadas. I wandered back to the hostel through the Recoleta and Palermo neighborhoods, soaking in the city. Met up with Alex to explore Palermo more. We were somehow matching exactly: tan alpaca sweater, blue shorts, slip on shoes. The point was to just walk the streets, window shop, dream about what it would be like to be in Palermo with money to spend. We ended up in the park, said hi to some ducklings, it was a beautiful day. Dinner at Burger Joint, which has just as fantastic burgers as everyone said it did. Back to America del Sur. It was Raj’s last night so we all went to Club Severino. More dancing, more pictures, even more fun. I love these people. Home at sunrise.
Tuesday it rained. I took advantage to hibernate, blog, get a great salad at a local organic vegetarian restaurant (my body thanked me). Got a text: Brendan was leaving sooner than I expected, so it’s back to America del Sur. I arrived just in time to say bye to Will. This was happening already? Lounging with everyone on the couches, Brendan finally went to catch his bus. We were all so sad. Alex, Ana and I made dinner, then we went back to the basement to watch a movie but were relegated to the bean bags on the floor. Who were these new people on our couches? I said bye to Louise before I left, and on my way out I said bye to America del Sur.
Wednesday it was just Alex, Ana and me left, and we were all in Palermo now. Alex and I had another Palermo day, taking advantage of the Wednesday deals. We picked up some insanely delicious ice cream for lunch on the way to the MALBA, which is only AR$25 on Wednesdays. Great museum, incredible light exhibit. Alex imagined the whole thing as a DJ set. Dinner at La Cabrera. This fantastic Argentinian steak house has a happy hour deal on Wednesday from 7-8: 40% off the entire menu. We ate like we were not backpackers – half a filet minion for me, a whole one for Alex, tons of side sauces (plus free fries from our generous waiter, despite honestly saying we had no money), and we shared a bottle of Malbec. One of the best meals of our lives. After dinner I met up with Ana, who had moved into my hostel, and we were surprised to see Kye from America del Sur was our new roommate too. House party at Alex’s. It’s almost over.
Thursday was my last day. Ana and I were slow to start but eventually made it to my friend’s recommended place for open-faced empanadas before doing some shopping and getting drenched in a downpour. Ana said BA was crying for my last day like it did on Brendan’s. Around 4:00 Alex came over, and he, Ana, Kye, and I had tea with sweets. How British (Alex and Kye are Brits, Ana is Ecuadorian). It was my last night in BA so Ana, Alex and I went out in Palermo. Ridiculous night. I can’t even describe it. Out till sunrise, we were still hanging out in the hostel common area when they were setting up breakfast. I couldn’t believe I had a flight in a few hours.
Friday I got in a cab and went to the airport. It was all over. Time to change continents. In the BA airport I was just sad to leave, messaging friends and instagramming pictures of BA. I used my layover in Santiago to transition; I tried to move into a mindset that was looking forward to the next part of my trip in New Zealand.
So there’s the answer to what I did in BA. I’m sure you can guess why it meant so much, but I’ll save that for another post. I need some time to figure out how to write that one too.