Round the World trip

“One Year”

One of my summer projects was to go through the boxes I have stored at my parents’ place and try to eliminate some of them. It’s amazing how much stuff I still have from years past, and how much I still have yet to go through. But one of the boxes I did make it to was my high school notebooks. While the notebooks went the way of the recycling bin, I held onto the papers I found out of curiosity. When I couldn’t fall asleep last night I decided to read some of them. I came across one called “One Year.”

I don’t remember the assignment – it was in my American Literature class, in which we had to write a series of reflective journals – but I can guess from the title and first line that we had to write what we would do with a year of free time. Anything we wanted. Here are the first and last paragraphs of my response:

One free year. It sounds like a lot of time, but it is so hard to fit everything I want to do into one year. I want to see the world, spend time in the wilderness of Vermont or Alaska, live in the city, intern, work on my photography, play ice hockey and lacrosse, relax by the pool, and so much more. But it is impossible to do all that in one year. Choosing the most important enterprise requires a lot of thought. What can I benefit from the most at my age? What can I fit in the time of 365 days? What offers the most opportunities for amazing adventures and exploration?  The first two questions have many different answers, but in considering the third question one endeavor in particular stuck out: see the world. Granted, it is an extremely courageous plan, but just choosing certain places can cut it down to being doable in just one year. One day I’d like to have been to every continent but that will take many years, not just one. So in order to shorten the list I thought of where I have wanted to go for the longest. These four ventures are the places that I want to go to as soon as possible. They all reflect a way of life I wish to attain: spontaneous, relaxed, peaceful, and cultured.

As I finish this paper I can just imagine all the wonderful places I have written about and I wish I were leaving tomorrow. All of these locations have so much to offer and I want to absorb all that is there. Ultimately I choose travel because of the experience. There is no way to gain a greater knowledge about the world than to see it. As profitable as that is, there is more to it than becoming more cultured. Travelling is where I can really explore myself. Being away from what I’m used to and in completely different surroundings, sometimes even with new languages, is how I can really tell who I am. Can I adapt well to these situations? There is no way to know until I try. I hope that visiting all these places would bring out the kind of person I’ve always wanted to be, the person that is stuck inside but needs help being released. The entire experience would open me up more and each place would bring out a different quality in me. San Francisco would show the more relaxed part of me while Fiji displays the exotic. Australia is just the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Europe is for the culture. Hopefully every place will help me achieve peace in life and help me be the kind of person I want to be.

This paper is dated November 23, 2003. I have been saying that my Round the World dream started senior year of college, so I’m sorry to say that I have been lying to you all. It appears to have started junior year of high school.

It is an incredible thing to read the thoughts of 16-year-old me and be able to tell her: “you will do this.” And: “you nailed it.” That final paragraph is everything to me. The fact that I actually went to most of the places I talk about in the rest of this paper – San Francisco, the Great Barrier Reef, the Coliseum in Rome – and even accomplished some of the other things I mentioned in the first paragraph – interned, lived in the city, spent time in Vermont – is just icing on this cake from the past.

The World I Saw

 

The End. And The Beginning.

I saw the sunrise today.

For the first time in months I was up early enough to witness this natural daily occurrence that to me has become a meaningful event. I missed sunrises. They were some of my more pensive moments while traveling. I came to appreciate them even more than sunsets – maybe because it felt like you had to earn a sunrise, waking up way before an alarm should go off; or maybe because it was a more singular experience, less popular than sunsets and quieter too; or maybe because it was more hopeful, witnessing the start to the day instead of the end. A new dawn. A new day. A new adventure.

So when I was suddenly wide awake at 4 in the morning wondering why the hell I couldn’t sleep anymore I decided to stop fighting it and just accept that my day would start early today. I remembered Inle Lake. I woke up for no reason at 4 in the morning there one day and by the time breakfast started at 6:30 am I had already finished some video editing I’d been putting off and was more than ready to set out on our full day boat adventure. 24 hours later I was riding in the back of a tuktuk as the morning mist rose over the fields on my way to the train to Kalaw. The 45-minute tuktuk ride was frigid cold but I didn’t mind. I had a lot of thoughts that morning about where I was and how far I had come to be there that never made it to this blog. It’s about time they did.

Most important was this: “It’s really the trip I set out to do. I will never regret a single decision I’ve made.” I remember the moment I thought that and the smile that came across my face. The way I traveled wasn’t for everyone – fast-paced, covering lots of land in little time – and I received some flak for it. I was told I was planning too much, I needed to slow down, I was just doing the highlights tour. Sometimes they were right, I did and still do wish I had stayed some places longer, but I made my decisions with reasons behind them and I had to be okay with that. People will always tell you how to travel but in the end it’s up to you, me in this case, to decide what’s best for your trip. My trip was a highlights tour of the regions I went to but what’s so wrong with that?

I never traveled after college. The one- to three-month trip that everyone should do when they graduate (I’m sure the Europeans are scoffing at that short timeline but that’s what is more accepted in the US) was something I skipped. I blame the recession; I graduated in a time when everyone was in such a panic to get work that I just started applying for internships as soon as possible. I also knew that I would make time for travel later. So this trip was my chance to do all of those trips at once.

South American highlights, the World Cup, Australia’s East Coast, a New Zealand road trip, Southeast Asia – think about how many times you’ve heard recent college grads take a month to do any of one of those. That sounds more digestible right? Well, in my all or nothing way of life I decided that I would take a year to do all of those and then some. I could have easily stayed in Colombia for a couple of months and worked at a hostel, applied for a work-study visa for New Zealand and called Wanaka home for their summer, or done a personal exploration long stay in Laos or Northern Thailand, but that wasn’t what I set out to do. I set out to see the world, to do a survey of the types of places that are out there, and to have some fun along the way.

I did that. Mission accomplished. And I am so proud that I can say that.

Something else that became clear to me along the way, although it hadn’t fully taken shape before I’d left but was always lingering in the depths of my mind somewhere, was the idea that this trip was an introduction to the world not a closing statement. Just because I can check the box that says Indonesia does not mean that I won’t go back. I didn’t check off destinations, I added more in a different way. Now I know when I have limited vacation time (because let’s be honest, at some point I will have a “normal” job again and won’t be taking year-long world-traveling sabbaticals) where I want to go and how I want to see it.

That how is also a huge lesson of the past year. Now that I have tested the backpacker lifestyle I know better what works for me and what doesn’t. For example, on my next trip I want to plan even less, mainly going off of word of mouth from friends and fellow travelers, and if I find somewhere I like I’ll stay a while. I will also bring a hammock to sleep in and need to pack light enough to throw my backpack up on top of a bus in a hurry. In the future, I will probably not do the same backpacker style of travel (a major contributing factor to the decision of where I’m going next) and know the places that will benefit from having a bigger budget and more comfortable travel arrangements.

All of this is really my way of finally rounding out my posts about the 300 days I traveled the world. I felt the need to say once and for all that I did what I set out to do. Even some places I originally intended to see but had at some point cut, like Ecuador or Brisbane, found their way back in. And new places were added along the way, like Myanmar and Shambhala, that were wonderful compliments to the original plan. And to end the way I did, with an impromptu trip to Japan, could not have worked out any better. I look back at my month in Japan so fondly. It was a place I never expected to end up in that year, despite a strong curiosity to see it, but the flexibility of my open-ended plan and continued communication with a fellow traveler from months before combined in just the right way to bring me there. It was the perfect unexpected adventure to close out my ultimately perfect year of travel.

I’ve wanted to write this post all summer but something held me back. It took an unexpected early morning for me to get here, but that only seems fitting really. Early mornings were times I enjoyed on the road, where the conventional timeline of a day didn’t exist. It’s also August now, and maybe that’s the shift I needed to finally feel like I can focus on the next adventure. I saw the dawn of a new day today, and it made me excited about the many new days in new places to come.

Rock My Boat

 

Moving “The Trip” Into My Past

The trip is over. It’s been hard for me to come to terms with this fact, always pausing for a second when people refer to it in past tense: “How was it?” Was? Was. Right, it’s over. When the hell did that happen?

After five years of fantasizing, my big idea actually happened. I completed my dream Round the World trip, making it through all the countries I wanted to see and then some. It’s taken a while for that to sink in and for me to perceive it as a huge accomplishment. Talking about my trip in the past tense is still sad, but it’s turning positive, becoming something I am proud of and okay with being a part of my past instead of my present.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it took so long to come around to this point. I think there are a few factors. First, I had a hard time with the word “back” when I got to the US. People kept saying, “Welcome back!” and I kept thinking, “I’m not really back…” Although I had returned to the United States, I knew it was only temporary – this is a “layover,” as a friend put it, and I fully intend on leaving the country again after the summer is over. I was told at one point that no one thought I would come back, and it was then that I realized that this idea that everyone thought I had returned for good irked me. I checked my rising temper as I responded that they were actually right, I had not come back, even if my physical presence seemingly contradicted this statement. My initial difficulty with this particular word has subsided; there aren’t many other phrases to use when someone returns to their home country after an extended journey. The important thing is that I know that this “back” is not final.

Second, I think the open-ended nature of my trip had something to do with it. Not having a concrete moment to call “the end” was supposed to create a feeling of flexibility and freedom, but it may have had a side effect of anxious and confused. I wound up viewing India as the end to my trip since it was the last country on my original itinerary. I came to realize I needed that end to know that I had completed my goal and thus feel okay that I had come home. For a while I felt like I had copped out, ran away to home just when things were really unknown instead of continuing on as a true nomad. I don’t see it that way anymore, especially as I start to shift my focus to leaving again, but it definitely took a while to shake that feeling. The tattoo I got in India of my flight path has been a wonderful reminder; every time I look at it I feel like I really accomplished what I set out to do.

Third, the undeniable fact that there is always more to see. Whenever I hear something about South Korea part of me cringes knowing I was just a three hour ferry ride away and I chose to come back to the States instead. But I could say the same for my proximity to Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the list goes on and on. The world is huge, we all know that, and at some point I had to take a break before I could even try to see any more of it. I moved at lightening speed and needed a rest, a fact I had to first coax myself to admit and then constantly remind myself of leading up to my flight, along with the fact that I can always go back. The world will still be there when I’m ready to get out there again, just because this trip is over doesn’t mean I can’t take another one.

But now, I’m starting to feel that my idea about coming to Vermont was right. I needed time to let this trip become part of my past. Let it sink in. Complete my final projects – blog posts like this, the last of my video editing, pulling together highlight reels of my photos, and my tickets, bracelets, and coins collage – as an act of closure. Taking off the bracelets was symbolic for me. I took them all off over the course of the weekend leading up to June 1 (my first day back at work). Each one has a place associated with it, and almost all are connected to people too, so every time I untied one I mentally relived a part of my trip. As each bracelet came off, each place was put into my memory bank, where it will remain forever a positive part of my history.

Under the Worldwide Sea

 

I Slept There – A Photo Experiment

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.

Included Food Photo Project

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…

Let the Good Times Ramble On

 

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.