My Stuff is Ready to Go

I’m all packed. Same Gregory Deva 60L backpack, same Fjallraven Totepack No.1, same packing cubes and system – I fell back into old habits pretty quickly. I’ve made a few adjustments here and there based upon my experience from last year, but despite saying that I was going to bring less I think that I am actually straddling the line between reduced packing and over packing. Here’s why.

I have two weeks in San Francisco first. This has led to a fairly blasé attitude about the shirts I am bringing. I have a third cube of clothing that is “for SF” and that I say I will get rid of when I leave, but just like the “for Rio” bag last year I have a feeling some of it will stay with me longer. I also threw in an extra of everything again, knowing that I technically have the space to fit it. And, since I have pretty much zero attachment to anything I’m bringing with me, the fact that I don’t mind ditching things along the way has contributed to the extra stuff – I admit it’s a bit backwards but thinking “I’ll just throw it out if I don’t want it anymore” resulted in more stuff sneaking in. Plus with the warm climate I’m going to they’re all small tank tops that don’t take up much room. So with that, I admitted defeat to myself and packed up everything.

But I still don’t count the “for SF” cube as being part of my 6-months-worth of clothing. So here is what I’m bringing for the trip, minus the supposed “for SF” stuff.

6 Months of Clothes

Clothes for 6 Months

Doesn’t look too bad right? 4 tanks and 4 tshirts, 2 long sleeves, 1 inbetweener, 1 cardigan, 1 dress, 1 jeans, 1 black yoga-type pants (hopefully to be replaced ASAP), 1 shorts, 1 set of sleeping stuff (shorts and tank), 9 socks and underwear, 4 bra types, 1 bathing suit (but top and bottom are reversible so it’s like having 4), 1 sneakers, 1 Toms, 1 Tevas (bringing the Tevas back), 2 hats, 1 gloves, 1 buff, and 1 scarf (not pictured, had to dig it out of a box).

One thing that is also more concrete this time is the notion that I will get things I need along the way. Like new pants. Last time I got thin loose pants in Vietnam that ended up being a great addition – mostly for hot weather temple days when I had to be covered up – and I’m hoping I’ll find something similar this time. They would replace the black yoga-type pants that I do not want to bring but packed anyway since I need some alternative to jeans. Picking up clothing and accessories that I needed was also a great excuse to get souvenirs.

Other things that are not pictured here are the same practical items I had last time – medical kit, hygiene stuff, collapsible 1L water bottle, sleep sheet, etc. If you’re really curious just let me know and I can list those out too, but it’s pretty much everything you’d expect.

My electronics haven’t changed either: Canon G16, GoPro, Lenovo laptop, iPhone 4S. They all worked so well why would I change anything? I did not end up getting the external hard drive like I said I would, I just couldn’t justify the price, so I’ll go with Google Drive again. It works fine, as long as I can get enough of an internet connection to upload. Plus now I know my camera’s memory card has enough space for over 6,000 photos. I did bring a back-up 4GB SD card again, but this time loaded it up with movies I forgot I had on my external hard drive at home. Since I am out of Sopranos (anyone want to send me seasons 4-6?) I need something else to entertain me when I don’t feel like reading. For music I am bringing my shuffle again, but I have tripled the amount of songs in my iTunes library. Just because the shuffle can only hold 150 songs doesn’t mean I only have to have 150 songs with me. This way whenever I plug in my shuffle it will randomly select a new batch of songs to load so I’ll have at least some change of music. I plan on doing that about once a month.

I did get travel insurance again: Explorer level through World Nomads. Now if something happens to me in the caves in Mexico or on a flight to the Corn Islands I will be protected. Better to be safe than sorry. All my important Google Docs have been updated and I made sure to scan in my license this time so if it gets stolen at a club again I will have some proof I can drive. Major oversight on my part last time.

So with all the logistics taken care of, I’m all set and ready to go. You’d think I’d be jumping up and down in excitement, but for some reason I’m pretty relaxed about all of this. Maybe because it’s become so routine for me now there’s no reason to stress. Or maybe it’s just not real yet, and I need to get on that plane before it sinks in. Or maybe the distraction of seeing everyone in SF first is pushing the international trip to the back of my mind. Whatever the reason, at least I’m not freaking out about anything. And now I can just enjoy my last weekend in the beautiful countryside of Vermont.


The Week of Preparations

It’s time. This is my last week in Vermont – on Monday I start the process that is leaving, first to Jersey City for three days, then to San Francisco for two weeks, and then finally to Mexico City and Central America for as long as it feels right (or until the end of March, whichever comes first).

Last Wednesday was my last day at one part-time job, Thursday was my last day at the other. This means that I have returned to the status of “unemployed” for the foreseeable future and I couldn’t be more excited about it. I celebrated the end of three months of work with a great weekend tubing on Saratoga Lake and partying at Travers horse race with friends. But I knew upon returning it would be time to get down to business.

IMG_7586 So that’s where I’m at today. I sat down and made “The Seriously Big To-Do” list at the end of last week, recalling the steps I went through last June, and am giving myself Monday to Friday to cross them off. Then I can focus on playing again.

The question is, where do I start? I’ll probably jump around ADD-like, breaking up important logistics like phone calls to credit card companies and purchasing travel insurance with more fun tasks like updating my music selection and getting rid of clothes.

One thing that’s very different this time from last time is that my post-trip plans require me to pack even less even more strategically. Last time I just moved everything I couldn’t let go of out of an apartment to be stored in my parents’ garage; this time I plan to have just one suitcase of clothing/shoes/accessories so that when I make the move to Europe next year (Phase III of this wandering life plan) I don’t have to lug as much stuff on the plane as I did when I crossed the United States.

Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same process as last time. Me, my to do list, and five days of tasks. Nothing that isn’t worth it for the six months of adventure that will follow.

I Lived It, So Now I’m Barely Prepping

I’ve been feeling like I’m not doing enough to prepare for this next trip. I decided I’m going, I bought a flight, I mapped out a few highlights to get a general idea of a route, and I started refreshing my limited Spanish with Duolingo. I looked up my malaria pill needs and visa requirements, a few technical details that I knew needed to be sorted out a couple of weeks in advance. But still I have this feeling of “what am I not doing that I should be doing?” So I pulled out my old Round the World planning book to flip through the pages that I’d found to be so crucial last year.

Short of some notes on what I need to remember to stock in my medical kit and where it says I shouldn’t miss in Central America, I didn’t pay attention to much else. The reality is, I know all I need to. I’ve gone through this before, and not just the planning but the actual life of travel, and the practical knowledge I gained is way more valuable than anything a book can tell me.

I know I need to get travel insurance before I go, an expense I’m waiting to cover until my last paycheck. I know the wardrobe changes I need to make and the weight of the bag I want to have. I know I will be staying in hostels, drinking water out of water bottles, and carrying the necessary copies of things in case something goes awry.

As for the rest of planning, the point is to not plan, so why would I even dive into any location specifics? People tell me all the time “I loved this town” or “I have a friend living here I can connect you with.” I haven’t even left and the trip is taking shape.

So instead of all this pre-trip prep that I had so diligently taken care of last year, I’m finishing up my final summer projects and occasionally checking in on minor details that come to mind. I’m not worried or stressed – I know I can do this, so I know when the time comes I’ll be ready and able to quickly get back into the swing of things. Until then, I’ll probably be pretty quiet on here while I’m out there enjoying the end of summer in Vermont.

Post Trip Analysis: 154 Songs for a Year

All I had for a year of music was my iPod shuffle from 2007. It’s a 2nd generation shuffle that just has a large play button off-center on the front and doesn’t work with the fancy new headphones that can advance a song. Mine is green, which earned it the nickname Kermit, and has “you go girl” inscribed on the back – it was a gift from my aunt. It holds 154 songs.

154 songs for a year. Imagine how hard it was to pick those songs. At home I had gotten used to Spotify, where I had the majority of the songs in the world at my fingertips; where I didn’t have to curate playlists, I just subscribed to other people’s; and when I got tired of the music I’d repeatedly listened to I could find something new in a second. I went from endless music options to the restriction of having to own music in my iTunes to put onto the shuffle. That’s right, I had to download and possess this music.

It took a solid half a day before I left to even select the songs I wanted in my iTunes on my new computer. My old Macbook had somewhere around 6,000 songs to choose from, plus I downloaded some new ones I didn’t want to live without (since my iTunes was a few years out of date thanks to the advent of Spotify). I carefully selected 268 to load onto my Lenovo. This meant that even once fully loaded, Kermit could not hold all the songs I had in my library. All whopping 268 of them.

So it was a random 57% of my songs that ended up on Kermit. Along the way I picked up an additional 53 songs from Alex in Buenos Aires, who had just done a DJ set there, which brought my grand total to 321 songs and, more importantly, provided me with some new options. Now when I reloaded Kermit it was a total guessing game what 48% of my music I would get to listen to on the go.

How did this work out for me? Brilliantly. Despite the limitations and my wide range of music taste, I was able to assemble a playlist that covered all moods and genres. Kermit came through for me in every situation, from long contemplative bus rides to energetic city walks. And most importantly, I was never worried about my music device being stolen. Coming from the land of iPhone theft – I had 3 iPhones stolen in a year and a half in San Francisco – I was worried about carrying around such an expensive, tempting device just to play some music. But with the shuffle, not only was it discreet in size and clipped to me at all times, it was so old that no one would want to take it even if they could get to it.

Not to say that I’m not happy to have Spotify back in my life – understandably I need a break from those 321 songs – but when I do find myself in areas devoid of service (which happens frequently in Vermont) I gladly bring Kermit out of retirement. He won’t be retired long anyway, I fully plan to bring Kermit along for the next ride.

Post Trip Analysis: Budget

One of the questions I’ve been asked most is, “How was your budget?” Often this is prefaced by, “I don’t want to be nosy” or “I hope it’s not inappropriate but I’m really curious.” Because of this, I’ve debated how transparent I want to be about my budget; money is always a little uncomfortable for people to talk about. But in the interest of other RTW travelers everywhere, I’ve decided what the hell, here it is.

I budgeted $30,000 for the trip, with $5000 marked as my “Go Home Now” money (flight home plus 2 months to figure out what to do next). That left me with $25,000 to spend. I divided my trip into three segments – South America, Australasia, Asia – and allotted the same amount of money to each, taking into account both time and potential costs of the regions. Three months in South America should be about the same as two months in Australasia and four months in Asia. Therefore each leg got an even $8000. I told myself each had $6000. I preferred to lie to myself to keep my budget in check, aiming low but knowing that I had a little wiggle room, and it seems to have worked.

The end results:
South America: $6289.90
Australasia: $5133.93
Asia: $4039.11
+ Initial RTW flights: $3434.00 & Flight back to the US: $612.64
Total: $19,509.58

I came home under budget. Most people are pretty surprised I was able to travel for so long for less than $20,000. Plus I did everything I wanted to do – skydiving, scuba diving, Salt Flats tour, Whitsundays boat, two tattoos, etc. These things did cost a decent chunk of change but I found ways to save elsewhere, making it possible to really experience more of the world instead of just hanging in a hostel barely getting by. In fact, in the breakdown of where most of my money went, the activities section comes in second, followed by food in third, and accommodation in fourth.

So where did most of it go? Transportation costs. If it wasn’t for the planes, trains, and automobiles I would have done the trip for just over $10,000, but then I also wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. Flights around Brazil were a major contributor – hence the decision to move around only by bus for the rest of South America – as well as international ones.

How did I end up under budget? There are a few reasons. First, incredibly helpful, generous people, who happened be in some of the more expensive places I went to. I stayed for free at a friend of a friend’s in Sydney for 6 nights, and again with a family friend in Singapore; I lucked out in New Zealand twice with an amazing couchsurfing host in Christchurch and a friend who gave me the rest of her Naked Bus pass to use for free, which is how I got back up to Auckland from Queenstown; I can’t even begin to describe the generosity of my family who was with me in Vietnam; and the wonderful Christmas gifts from family that helped cover some of Ko Phi Phi and Bali.

The other two main money savers were cheap food and sleeping on transportation. In a lot of South America and Southeast Asia it’s possible to get meals for $1-$3. I’ll eat pretty much anything and was happy to try the local street food, and was lucky to not have any stomach issues, so I picked most of my meals based on what cost the least. In New Zealand and Australia I often made food in hostels with other travelers, saving on the expensive costs of eating out there. And I always had granola/muesli or cereal bars with me as a back-up and for food on transportation; I never bought food at a rest stop. All the nights I slept on buses weren’t for my enjoyment, they were ways to save on accommodation. The way I saw it, I had to pay to get between places anyway, so why not sleep on the transportation? It’s not like there’s much else to do that I would be missing out on, and my budget would benefit from a blank spot in the accommodation column. Any time I slept on transportation I saw it as funding my next activity. Sometimes I would arrive pretty tired, but the adrenaline from arriving at a new location was all the caffeine I needed to still make use of the day.

The most surprising outcome to me was Australasia. I was terrified of how much that part was going to cost me, but somehow I ended up not just under budget, but under my budget lie.

The most challenging part of budgeting was when friends from home joined me. It’s a different kind of travel when it’s not your daily life, and I wanted to make sure they had the vacation they came for while still taking into account my strict monetary concerns. This was hardest during the World Cup in Brazil. For those who came to travel with me for a bit, thank you for understanding my constraints and enduring some less than desirable travel situations to help me out.

My reward for being under budget was Japan. None of those numbers include Japan. When I got to Japan I already felt that the trip was done and anything else was bonus. I didn’t entirely ignore the way I had been living, but I didn’t log everything I spent either. In the end, I added up my credit card bill and cash withdrawals to get my Japan spending total of $2476.78 (not including my flight from India to Japan, which was $412.39). For one month in an expensive country during the biggest tourist draw, the cherry blossoms, that’s not so bad really. It brings my total trip cost to $22,398.75.

Some things that are not included in this total are visas and pre-trip purchases like gear and immunizations. Those were all paid off when I still had a job or with back-up cash that wasn’t part of my initial $30,000 departure money.

I logged every cent I spent in an incredibly detailed spreadsheet – which I got from alittleadrift.com and definitely recommend to other people who want to keep track of their spending – which helped immensely to see where I was in my budget and make decisions about whether or not I could do an activity. If I was under the daily budget for a country, I was more likely to spend the money on something like scuba diving the Similan Islands or a flight to Goa instead of a long bus ride. I based my daily budget per country on BootsnAll’s destination guides, another very helpful resource worth looking into if you’re planning a RTW trip.

I’m proud of myself for not just sticking to my budget but actually coming in under budget, and it’s part of the reason I’m so confident that I can travel for another six months. I returned with more money than initially planned, and after three months of working will have replenished my account enough to take off again.

Final Analysis of My Packing Decisions

Before leaving I had to make a ton of logistical decisions. Never having done a trip like this before, I made educated guesses informed by reading guidebooks and blog posts. At what was originally my halfway point I wrote a mid-trip analysis of how some of my pre-departure decisions were going, so now that I’m back I figured I should write a final analysis on how it all worked out in the end. Honestly, I was pretty spot-on.

Perfect. They held up so well through being thrown around on all forms of transportation and a few long walks in the rain (even if the color is a little faded and they’re now rocking the ‘worn’ look). They fit every need I had and by the end of the trip I could pack them in about five minutes; everything had its place. I will never travel with a normal suitcase again. Being able to move around with everything on my back is the best way to travel. I even brought my backpack into NYC instead of a typical overnight bag. And I still use the Fjallraven bag daily – it is just the right size, has just the right pockets (inside a small one for wallet and keys plus a laptop sleeve, outside one for quick access stuff), and I’ll never stop raving about the three ways to wear it (shoulder bag, messenger bag, backpack).

The only change I would make for next time is perhaps using a smaller backpack. The main reason for this is airplanes: I would like to be able to fly carry-on (although having a Leatherman with me made that impossible anyway) and budget airlines charge more based on weight, so I never wanted to go over 15 kg. I think I could fit everything into a 40L bag since mine was really never full. However, with the ebb and flow of how much I carried with me, it made sense to have a little extra space for those times when I picked up a few extra things for a short time, like a bulky shawl and a gift in my final days in Japan, or when I had to shove all my stuff into the backpack in Salvador for safety concerns. But any woman who’s looking for a 60L backpack, the Gregory Deva is the best, I highly recommend it.

Overall my clothing decisions were pretty good. Even though I became totally sick of them and all the hostel washing machines wore them down and stretched them out, most of my clothes lasted me the whole year. Along the way I did pick up a few things and drop a few things, either sending them home with people who visited or throwing them out.

Some things that I should have brought that I picked up along the way: scarf, cardigan, and more underwear. Whoever said you just need a weeks worth of underwear must love washing it in the sink. Yes this is doable, and I did it as well, but when family came to visit in Vietnam and Thailand they all brought me more underwear. Great, I thought, I could throw out the old ones. Nope. I kept them all. Girls underwear is small, I had the room, and it meant I did wash less often (to be honest I only washed my clothes when I was out of underwear). A cardigan was a nice addition just to have another layer that wasn’t an outdoorsy jacket. By the time I got to Southeast Asia it was so hot all the time that I didn’t need heavy jackets, but at night it was nice to have some other layer. A scarf had to be my favorite addition. It was an easy fix when I was slightly cold in a t-shirt or absolutely freezing bundled up in all my layers, and came in handy as a blanket on an overnight bus. Plus it easily fit in my second bag so I always had it on me.

Bolivia sweater, Peru socks, Ecuador gloves, Vietnam pants, New Zealand sneakers
Bolivia sweater, Peru socks, Ecuador gloves, Vietnam pants, New Zealand sneakers

In the end though I’m happy I didn’t have everything I needed because now I have souvenirs from all over the place. I didn’t let myself spend precious money on souvenirs, but when I needed cold weather clothes in South America or hot weather clothes in Asia I could justify the minimal amount of money they required. It was a great excuse to pick up some useful things that remind me of the places where I got them.

Something I would have brought next time: sneakers instead of hiking boots. Unless you’re planning on doing some serious trekking, consider sneakers instead of boots. I could have done the hikes I did in sneakers and also worn them daily in cities or actually have gone on runs (I like to think not having the proper footwear is the reason I didn’t work out…). For my trip, they would have worked better. I already have a pair I’m planning to bring on my next trip.

Something I didn’t use: clothes drying line. It’s so easy and cheap to drop off laundry around the world (except Australia, of course) that I never did end up washing all my clothes in the sink (except the occasional underwear). For $2 all my clothes were washed, folded, and ready for wear in 24 hours, and while that was being done I was out exploring. It was worth it to me.

Cameras, great: the Canon G16 was perfect for high quality photos in a reasonably compact camera body, and I used the GoPro even more than I originally thought for adventures both extreme (scuba diving) and daily (rickshaw rides). I can confidently say I documented my trip well and I am exceedingly happy about that.

Laptop, great: the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11S was small and portable enough to not feel like a burden but with a full keyboard and ports (USB, card reader) functioned exactly how I needed it to, plus the rotating touch screen was a nice perk when I wanted to watch The Sopranos or prop it up for music (although the speakers are pretty bad).

Something I will bring next time: portable hard-drive. While Google Drive totally did work for backing up photos in the cloud (I now have 7 email accounts), I was still paranoid about losing everything and kept almost all my pictures on my camera’s memory card until I got home and could put them on my big external hard-drive.

Something I didn’t use: the extra back covers with the openings for the GoPro. I was too worried to ever take off the waterproof back. Also I could probably go without the head mount; the clip mount and a backwards hat worked just fine for the very few times I wanted it on my head.

My surprisingly most-used device: my iPhone. I debated whether or not to even bring it, and now it’s one of the things I tell people they should bring with them. It’s a little portable computer, and now with widespread wifi and map apps that don’t even need wifi (maps.me is a traveler’s best friend – it syncs maps to your phone for offline use and can even find you in the most hectic places, like Hanoi) I have to admit it’s incredibly useful. As much as I liked being disconnected, for those times when technology really does help and a laptop is just not as easily accessible, the iPhone was a great addition.

I left the States with two books: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, and Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoestring. I did not bring a kindle. I knew hostels had book exchanges so I wanted my reading material to come from those; I hoped to discover books that I may not have thought to purchase myself, and, figuring many of them would be left behind by other travelers, ones that were enjoyed by people with similar interests to mine. It worked wonderfully.

I read 11 books during the year. Since I only had Don Quixote, in Brazil Bobby gave me one of the books from his traveling library as a back-up, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. When I finished Don Quixote, a 1000-plus-page feat that took all of South America, I left it behind in my hostel in Buenos Aires and picked up a two small books – a thriller and a German book (ambitious of me) – whose names I forget because I never ended up reading them. Once we got to a hostel in New Zealand with a better option I swapped the thriller for The Pelican Brief by John Grisham. Meanwhile I was reading The Satanic Verses, which I finished and swapped in my Melbourne hostel for The Hunger Games, Part 2 by Suzanne Collins. After the last two serious books I figured I deserved a break, and I had a long flight coming up. I read it cover to cover on that 9-hour entertainment-less flight. In my hostel in Hanoi I swapped it with a girl in my room for Wild: An Elemental Journey by Jay Griffiths, which was left behind in Vientiane for Chelsea Handler’s My Horizontal Life. Meanwhile I had started The Pelican Brief, which I finished in Dreamtime and swapped for Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakmi. In Dreamtime I also left behind the unread German book for Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country: A Memoir, which I plan on reading this summer. I finished Sputnik Sweetheart in Myanmar and, in my hostel in Inle Lake, swapped it for The Harp in the South by Ruth Park. Another fast read, I was done with it by India, where a girl in our Jaipur hostel gave me Wild, From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed. I swapped this in Hampi for another book about finding oneself in the nature of the United States, Into the Wild by John Krakauer. In the meantime I had ditched Chelsea Handler – which I could not finish, it was terrible – and The Harp in the South at our hostel in Goa, where Kwaz gave me Dave Eggers’s The Circle. At this point it was Japan, so I brought that one home with me and instead swapped Into the Wild for The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton in my hostel in Aso, my final book swap. So what this long saga is hoping to convey is how well the book exchange worked. I read books I’ve never heard of as well as books I’ve always wanted to read. I fully plan to travel this way again in the future.

As for the guidebooks, I only had the one for South America and Southeast Asia on a Shoestring (which I ordered through Amazon to my aunt, who nicely brought it to me in Vietnam). The rest was planned by advice from other travelers or online research. I don’t plan to bring a guidebook with me on the next trip because I learned that it is easy, and often much preferred, to pick a next location based on hearsay from other backpackers. But that’s not to say I didn’t at times find them extremely helpful – for sightseeing ideas, border crossing information, history of a region, and last-minute hostel options for those times I just showed up in a place with no reservation and no internet connection. So if you’re considering bringing a guidebook I do think they’re a good investment, especially if it’s your first time on a trip like this. I would also recommend treating them as I did – I ripped out the pages of places I wasn’t going to or had already been, often giving them to other travelers who were on their way to that location. It lightened my load quite a bit, even if the books looked totally massacred by the end. I still have the cover of each as a keepsake.

Health and Wellness
Honestly, all good. I got some back-up supplies from my sister when she joined me just after the 6 month mark, which was super helpful – tissues, wet wipes, and cold and flu medicine (which I used up during the time I thought I had dengue fever). Somehow I never ran out of bug spray or sunscreen – probably because I stopped using sunscreen around Australia when sun no longer burned me. I brought all the extra medicines that were recommended and never ended up needing them – Cipro and things like that, tons of Advil I never touched, and I even came back with spare Malaria pills. I also never did have to show my Yellow Fever vaccination card but at least I had it just in case, and that was one less disease to worry about. Better to be safe than sorry.

I had Travel Insurance the whole time but never once had to use it. I could view that as a waste of money, but I chose to see it as a solid investment. I think it’s one of those things where if I hadn’t gotten insurance I would have needed it, and if I did get it I wouldn’t need it. I prefer the latter, and that ended up being the case. Plus the reasoning behind getting it proved accurate: I never had to worry about anything I wanted to do while I was traveling. Scuba diving, skydiving, sandboarding, jungle treks, wine country biking – I was covered so I went for it all. Better to be safe than sorry again.

So I lived out of a backpack for a year. How did that go?
Living out of a backpack is easier than you think. I actually find myself having a hard time with all the extra stuff I have now that I’m back home. I keep reverting to the clothes that I brought with me on the trip – they feel normal, comfortable, easy. I’m actually hoping to get rid of even more stuff now that I’m back. And now that I know it can be done, packing for the next trip is going to be a cinch. People have more stuff than they ever really need, and experiencing only having a backpack’s worth of possessions was actually freeing. I was totally mobile and prepared to go anywhere in an instant – it felt great.

Winging It to Hiroshima and Manga Cafes

The day we went to Hiroshima was a giant question mark. To me, this was fun. We took it step by step, and every time we successfully completed one leg of the journey we felt accomplished.

First we had to get to the bus stop at Lake Yamanaka and hopefully get on a bus to Mishima, whose departure time we were basing on a picture I’d taken of a timetable posted at the bus stop. The sweet woman from our ryokan drove us there and anxiously waited until we got on the bus. It showed up when the timetable said it would and we got on. Step one, check.

Then we arrived in Mishima – luckily the bus dropped us right at the train station – and had to get a ticket on the Shinkansen train to Hiroshima. There were seats open on a train leaving in 20 minutes. Perfect! See how things just work out when they’re meant to? Although it set us back US$150 each for the ticket, we viewed the chance to ride the world’s fastest train as more than just a mode of transportation, it was a worthy part of a Japan visit. Step two, check.

Then we arrived in Hiroshima and had to find a place to sleep. We went to Tourist Information in the train station and they tried calling a couple places, but again cherry blossom season reared its ugly head and everything was fully booked. So Matt pulled out his back-up plan: “Do you know any manga cafes?”

Manga cafes, or internet and comic cafes, are a unique part of the Japanese culture. They’re places where you can rent a chair or cubicle for a set time – by the hour or in 3, 6, 9, and 12 hour blocks – to read Japanese manga comics. These are not comics for kids, but rather slightly pornographic adult graphic novels, so the manga cafe has a certain reputation amongst foreigners despite its total normalcy for Japanese.

There was a cafe just across from the train station so we said what the hell, let’s go check it out. This place was awesome. Sure we had to sleep in a glorified cubicle, but the mat covering the ground was big enough for two and more comfortable than any number of bus chairs or hard wood hostel beds I’ve slept in in the past year. Plus this cubicle came with a free unlimited drink bar (coffee, sodas, even soft-serve ice cream) and free wifi. There were ping pong tables, pool tables, and darts if you felt like playing a game. Some even have karaoke rooms. For just Y100 we could use the showers, which were actually pretty nice. The cubicle also had a computer and TV screen where we could watch movies – there were a couple English options – and we could order food to it (we did this our last night in Hiroshima, to properly experience the manga cafe). Step three, check.

Hiroshima was our first but not last experience in a manga cafe. Due to the inaccessibility of hostels, we ended up in manga cafes for four nights: 2 in Hiroshima, 2 in Kyoto. As a result, I now have member cards to two different cafes, so although I haven’t had to stay in one again since Kyoto I know it’s always a back up option. I do have to say, the one in Hiroshima (Aprecio) was far nicer than the one in Kyoto, plus they let us store our stuff there during the day, which no other place did.

The main problem with manga cafes though was that we had no home base. When we checked in at 6 pm, we had to check out at 6 am the next morning, and unless we wanted to pay way more than it should be for 24 hours we weren’t able to check back in until the next night. So when we had a long night out celebrating Matt’s birthday and got kicked out of our cubicle at 6 am, we were forced to wander the city all day nursing a brutal hangover and take a nap in a park. When the time came that we could check back in, strategically timing it for when we wanted to wake up the next day, we were pretty damn happy.

These places probably sound kind of ridiculous for so many nights’ accommodation, but honestly I’m happy to have experienced it. It was strange and definitely not something I could have done without months of unusual accommodation experience, plus the company of another backpacker who was just as up for any situation as I was. But if you ever find yourself stuck in Japan with nowhere to sleep, find a sign that says “24” in the middle of a lot of kanji symbols, most likely with pictures of some of the bonus spaces, and try out this uniquely Japanese option.

A Rant About Transportation in Asia

Transportation in Asia was a constant source of annoyance for me. I actually thought and said, “I miss the buses of South America” all the time. This isn’t just for the comfort level of the bus itself or even the bumpiness of the roads – South America had it’s fair share of shitty buses and popping popcorn rides – but because of the way it all works.

For starters, there aren’t really stations. Buses can pick you up anywhere. Most often it’s on a random street corner, sometimes at least near some travel agency offices or a taxi stand. Or they insist on picking you up from your hostel. Why is this a necessary thing? They send a minibus to the hostel which takes an hour to circle town and pick up everyone before going to the big bus. Sometimes it’s a tuktuk that picks you up, once it was a taxi that took us to the wrong station, and once the minibus was the actual transportation to the border for 6 hours.

And on the other side, they can drop you off anywhere too. Finding your hostel then becomes a fun game of ask everyone in sight and hope someone knows at least something helpful, or get in the first tuktuk that seems confident once you’re too frustrated to find it on your own.

Then there’s the reservation system. Instead of going to a station and buying a ticket, you talk to the travel agent (aka guy at stand with bus times) who makes a call then writes out a flimsy paper ticket. Who are they always calling? How do they know what bus and what seat? I want transcripts of these conversations so I can actually try to understand this system. It seems like chaos to me. But then you take the paper slip from the guy and trust that your bus will be at that time and, often, that someone will come get you.

The ride itself is so long because these buses stop so often. Instead of the “bathroom on board we don’t stop till we get there” system of South America there’s a “you can only pee when we tell you so we’ll stop every hour to do so and by the way thirty minutes at this one for food” system.

And that arrival time they tell you? Ignore it. It’d be one thing if all the buses were late, but sometimes they’re early! That probably sounds nice but when you’re supposed to arrive somewhere at 5 am and it’s actually 3 am it really sucks. I’ve wondered more than once how it was possible to make up so much time with all the stops, but then I decided it’s better to not know.

The entire system take a lot of faith. I had to just trust that what this random person told me would happen, and most of the time it actually did. Remarkably. It was a trying way to travel but I survived. I can’t say I’m not happy to be done with it though.

Especially after India. This all came to a head in India, the most difficult place in my trip to get around. First, everything is booked. Unless you plan weeks in advance forget the trains, but it’s not like buses are empty either. Is the whole country constantly on the move? Then once we did get a bus ticket we weren’t even sure it would work out until we were safely on the bus pulling out of the station, and even then there was little relief until we’d safely arrived at the next place. Let me take you through my worst bus experience…

Haridwar bus station

Haridwar bus station

It was leaving Haridwar (Rishikesh) for Jaipur. We rushed to the Haridwar bus station, aka open dirt patch with tons of people loitering everywhere, to find out our bus would actually be leaving an hour later. The man took my receipt and gave me a little yellow piece of paper no bigger than a post-it note. This was my ticket. We tried to wait at a location with the bus in view but quickly were surrounded by a dozen teenage boys asking for pictures. We had to move. This is how we spent an hour, constantly moving around the buses trying to get away from all of the staring people. We were the only white people there, and two blonde girls at that. We found a solo British man and the three of us stood next to our bus waiting to board, trying to ignore the group of men who had gathered nearby to stare. We got on the bus at the original time, then waited an hour and a half for it to leave. We watched full families load into a single sleeper bed. Finally on the road we felt relief, until the rest stop. Not having had a chance to use the bathroom before we left, we had to brave it. If you picture the kind of rest stop in a movie where two American girls would be abducted this was it. It was the most unsafe I’ve felt in all of Asia and I could not get back on the bus soon enough. Kwaz I’m sorry you had to experience this but I’m so happy to have had a friend with me. They never came by our bunk to make sure we were back, at some point the bus just started moving. They easily could have left people behind. Which is why we were shocked when someone banged on our bunk telling us Jaipur was the next stop. How did they even know where we were going? And who the hell was this guy, he wasn’t the one who checked our tickets when we got on. The bus weaved its way into the city and pulled over to drop us off, not at the bus station from which we had directions to our hostel, but in the middle of the Pink City. At 4:30 in the morning. It was dark, we were totally lost, and we quirky learned that nobody in Jaipur is helpful. Quite the opposite. We asked what direction something was to try to find the guest house and after a long walk through the deserted streets gave up and took a rickshaw, which went right back the direction we had come. We had been pointed in the exact opposite way we needed to go. Finally we made it to the guest house after a trip that was a serious test of my nerves.

This, along with a few other bus sagas (remember this and this?), is part of the reason I’m a bit relieved to be taking a break from traveling around Southeast/South Asia. It was a lesson in patience, which I suppose I’ve gained a lot of on this trip, and faith. Lesson learned. Moving on.

The Travel Marathon to India

It took two days, three flights, five airports, and four countries to make it to India.

I left my hotel in Yangon at 9:00 am on Friday for my flight to Bangkok Don Muaeng Airport. This part was pretty painless, as was the shuttle over to Suvarnabhumi Airport. As long as you have a flight confirmation the shuttle is free and takes just an hour.

When I arrived at BKK this time for my second sleepover, I knew the drill. I knew where the restaurants were and the good benches to sleep on. I settled down to a nice Western meal of an Americano and a club sandwich and completely caught up on my blog posts. I knew I had just two hours of precious wifi so I saved these until they were all written for a major upload and scheduling session. Done by 10 pm. Time to go down to my sleeping spot.

My bench was free so I tucked my backpack underneath me, arranged my sweater on top of my carry on bag as a pillow, set my alarm for 4:30 am, and pulled on my eye shade. Then it all went wrong.

Not only could I barely sleep this time, but I was woken up at 3:30 am by a kind also-attempting-to-sleep neighbor who informed me that the floor had become a bit of a swimming pool. There was a leak somewhere and it was flooding all underneath us, right where my backpack was. Fantastic. I jumped up and hoisted it onto the bench to find the front totally soaked. Luckily this is where I keep my rain gear so I was hopeful that everything was still okay. But this meant the end of my sleep. Soon a cleaning crew arrived with squeegees and a robotic suck-up-the-water chair thing and quiet time was over.

I waited out the remainder of the hour till check-in near the counter, and once it was finally my turn I was informed that India would probably want my visa on arrival confirmation printed out, which I could conveniently do at the airport for 110 baht. But their card reader was down, so I needed baht, which I no longer had. I exchanged a measly US$5 just to do this – better to be safe than kicked out of India – and decided to use the extra 50 baht towards another Americano on the other side of immigration. I deserved it.

It was not the leisurely morning I was hoping for when I arrived so many hours before my flight, but all that melted away once I stepped onto my Sri Lankan Airlines flight. First because I heard a new welcome that I had never heard before. Then the reality hit: I wasn’t just going through the motions of travel, I was going to India. INDIA. This was entirely different from anywhere I’d been so far, and somewhere that was that end of the road “oh I’ll think about that when I get there” location. Well, time to think about it.

Second because I had forgotten how lovely it can be to fly internationally. You would’ve thought it was my first flight; I was like a kid in a candy store when I discovered the free personal entertainment – so many choices! – and was handed a menu of options for my included meal. I went with the Spanish omelette. I’m backpacking, I will eat whatever free food you’ll give me. I settled into my extra leg room exit row seat and, instead of the sleep I desperately needed, enjoyed some vegging out time.

I had a layover in the Colombo, Sri Lanka airport and easily killed four and a half hours by video editing, writing (this post! you have no idea how great it felt to be writing about where I actually was for the first time in months), and watching the Sopranos. After 15 hours in BKK, 4.5 hours felt like nothing. Then I boarded my final flight of this travel marathon to Delhi. One more movie, one more in-flight meal – this time with a glass of wine – and one more nervous seat-clutching moment of turbulence, and we landed. I was in India.

Now all I had to do was wait, with another Americano and my sign, for the arrival of MISS KRISTIN with an I KWAZnik. Because while I still would have gone through this ordeal just to see India, being joined by my best friend made it so much more worth it. Two weeks and two Kriste/ins, India was going to be incredible.

Vibing with a Place

Something that I’ve been thinking about lately, and in the right circumstances talking about, is the way a person connects with a place. I have moved quickly on my trip, a fact I don’t regret but am starting to alter, and in thinking about why that’s happened and why I feel okay doing so I realized it comes down to one thing: some people just vibe better with certain places than others.

I don’t want to tell anyone how to travel, where they should go or how long they should stay, because I don’t really like it when people do that to me. To each their own. Some people love Hanoi, stay there two weeks, but after 2 days I felt like it was enough. Hell I left Phnom Penh and Mandalay after just a day with no regrets. But other people hate Santiago or Bogota and I could’ve been at either of those for much longer. And Kalaw for two and half days or San Pedro de Atacama for three might be unthinkable to some but were the highlights of Myanmar and Chile for me.

Whatever the reasons may be some people and some places just connect. That’s what travel is about really, finding the places that speak to you. So no matter what guidebooks, blogs, or other travelers may tell you, I say go with your gut. If a place doesn’t work for you get the hell out. If you love it, stay as long as you feel the need to. This world has too many great options to explore to not keeping moving till you find your place.