Our year at large has drawn to an end! The last month has been spent back home in New England, visiting with family and hunting for jobs. Our largely carefree day-to-day living has been swapped with talk of taxes and housing, plans for relocation and careers, and the other typical topics of reality. It’s not all as dreary as it sounds though – with fresh minds and perspective, job hunting is exciting, and we’re looking forward to being reunited with some of our belongings (like our kitchen – cooking for ourselves on the road involved varying degrees of success):
It’s hard, of course, to summarize a trip like this. I’ll start with the numbers. Stats:
- Days traveling internationally: 342. Not quite a year, but add on the time we spent camping across from California to Maine before we left for Thailand and you’re there.
- Number of locations: 111, or 3.1 days between moves on average. This was actually 2.5 days per location before the average was pulled up by a month in Tulum.
- Number of countries visited: 20. In order, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China (HKSAR), Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Nepal, Seychelles, South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, England, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Mexico.
- Number of bus trips: 54
- Number of flights: 40
- Number of rail trips: 15
- Number of boat journeys: 20
- Days spent on organized tours: 31, or 9%. This was mostly between Nepal and Egypt+Jordan.
- Number of blog posts: 55, including this one.
Random thoughts and reflections.
Top Experience: a common question we get is what was our favorite place or activity. That’s pretty much impossible to pin down – so much of what we did was memorable and unique. An answer I end up giving is our three most spectacular multi-week adventures: diving our way across Indonesia, trekking in the Himalayas, and our 4×4 safari across Southern Africa. Each of these had a combination of a leap beyond comfort zones, unparalleled natural beauty, a handful of trials, and an immersive duration that elevated the experience well beyond typical sightseeing. It’s really an oversimplification, however, to pick these three: it omits amazing places like Vietnam, Japan, Peru, and Patagonia. Depending on your interests and with a bit of luck and risk-taking, you can have a phenomenal experience nearly anywhere.
Best Food: there’s a tie here. For amazing cheap food no matter where you go, including soups that will create obsessions, insanely good pork dishes, and awesome bahn anything, Vietnam is definitely the winner for us. On the flip side, for perfectly prepared cuisine and the best fish in pretty much any form, Japan was also a favorite. Something these two cuisines have in common? Incredible focused flavor, reasonable portions, and excellent value. Sure, a meal in Japan can be really pricey, but it’ll be worth it. This is making me hungry…
Best Ruins: we saw a lot on this trip. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian; iconic Mayan and Incan; temples of all varieties across Asia; and the wonders of Petra and Angkor. It’s really hard to pick a favorite. The sheer amount of well-made and well-preserved stonework in Egypt is mindblowing – their technical capability developed thousands of years before everyone else is like nothing else in person. That has to take the prize, perhaps along with sprawling Angkor which has a wonderful variety of jungle-covered, half-fallen buildings with their own spectacular carvings.
Worst Moment: we did a pretty good job avoiding catastrophe. There were a few times, however, when circumstances and fatigue conspired against us. Obvious troubles would be food poisoning, missed connections, terrible weather, or other typical travel woes but of these we were largely spared, and when they did occur we could (mostly) take them in stride. I can think of two evenings where, despite our best to keep an even keel, things seemed dire. The first was in Kathmandu, late the night before we were to begin our Himalaya trek, and Elaine was burning up with a serious fever. I was pretty certain we would miss this adventure that we had been planning for months, and possibly need to go to a hospital. By morning, though, her fever had broken and we were off! The second moment of despair came in Botswana after a very long and hard day of driving, during which our truck began to fall apart. I became really frustrated with the combination of problems our rental company had given us, along with the uncertainty surrounding our level of liability and responsibility, to the point where I temporarily regretted ever embarking on the trip. That was silly! It was totally worth it. Lesson learned, yet again: if things looks bleak, just get some sleep.
Elaine might also add to the list of Worst Moments the time where she came face to face with an anxious Mozambique spitting cobra, but I wasn’t there – I only heard her scream. And everyone lived. Or maybe the time she sat on a sea urchin…
Best Moment: I’m not even going to try. There were so many moments of euphoria, I’m afraid if I distill it down into a short list I might start to forget some of the others. Read through the blog, or have a beer with us, and we’ll share! Or go out and make some of your own.
Most Expensive Countries: A bit hard to figure. I tried to exclude big ticket activities like diving as well as international flights, but then our Southern Africa safari rises to the top due to the cost of our offroad rental (otherwise, living is pretty affordable). Here’s an interesting fact, however: expected pricey locations like Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong were indeed so, but these were all beat out by a surprise contender: Argentina! This might be slightly affected by travel fatigue pushing us to more comfortable lodging, but even without this it is definitely not a low cost place to travel. (Argentina’s Patagonian neighbor Chile was also not cheap, but it only hits 60th percentile on the list).
Argentina might be expensive, but it does have its high points:
Least Expensive Countries: Insert the list of Southeast Asian countries here. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia all were $50 a day per person including everything: transportation, lodging, food, entry fees, etc. That was living pretty comfortably too – one could do it for quite a bit less if need be. Obviously if you’re doing things like diving your costs go up meaningfully, but quality operators are a good value here too.
Toughest Language: we did our best to learn at least a handful of phrases everywhere we went, and we were more successful at some than others. Thai, despite the challenge of a unique written alphabet, wasn’t too hard to stumble through; Vietnamese proved a tougher tongue-twister, especially for Elaine while I did OK with at least my favorite foods (Elaine is usually the better linguist). Japanese, again with unique writing, remained accessible for simple communication. Weirdly, Patagonia was occasionally difficult, even though Elaine is great with Spanish and I’m so-so; the accent in Chile and Argentina is an odd one, vaguely Italian and very different from the ‘typical’ Spanish of Central and Northern South America.
Cutest Kids: this is a close one. The Sherpa children in the Himalayan Mountains are adorable – even toddlers greet you with a palms-together “namaste!” and a smile. Children throughout Southeast Asia find ways to enjoy their daily lives whether they are helping with chores or cooking, playing in the streets, or biking to school in uniform en masse. Peru, however, had the cutest kids we found. Ever polite, well-behaved, and cheerful (the girls, anyway), they are also well-dressed – often traditionally in bright woven colors. Peruvians overall are a beautiful people and culture!
Most Global Song: call it humanity’s anthem? There is one transcultural tune that we heard far more often than others, no matter where in the world we were. It was laughable, sometimes painful, but clearly so ubiquitous it deserves its own category. In airports, buses, restaurants, and malls, by a range of local artists or Celiene Dion’s own signature yodel, you can be assured that near, far, wherever you are, My Heart Will Go On will be ringing in your ears.
A distant second? Hotel California.
Man’s Best Friend: they may be more common in some countries than others, but boy have dogs done well by tagging along as mankind took over the globe. We found friendly dogs pretty much everywhere, and by and large they are loved by the locals whether they are stray or owned. Along the way we made temporary pals with a number of pups: ones that were living at our lodging, wandering the streets, or tagging along the trails with hikers. There was old Bauer (named after the brand of dive compressor), Gula and Madu (Sugar and Honey, in Indonesian), adorable Dory in Cape Town, just to name a few…
Biggest Insight: this will not have a zinger of an answer. Sure, we learned about each other and ourselves, but at this point in our lives these lessons were largely things that we probably already were aware of but hadn’t fully acknowledged. No dramatic lifestyle 180’s. One big thing we gained that you simply can’t get through the TV or heresay, however, is seeing how the rest of the world lives. We’d seen small snapshots on previous vacations, but spending months in Southeast Asia or South America while using public transit, eating local meals, and watching daily life was time well spent. Our gobal society is a complex beast and it’s so easy to only be aware of a small part of it; traveling like we did helped me build a closer relationship with our planet and people.
I guess that’s sort of zinger-y.
Best Sunset: another challenging one to nail down! For a beachfront view, we saw great ones in Thailand and the Seychelles, but Indonesia wins. On Gili Air the evening light hits the Strait of Lombok just right as the sun drops behind Bali’s Agung Volcano, making a great way to cap off a busy day of diving. Surprisingly, however, our very best sunsets came well away from the ocean. Inland Africa’s expansive, richly hued sunset views were consistently spectacular!
Best Sunrise: Nepal. Climbing out of Namche Bazaar in a hazy Himalayan dawn, we turned a corner to find the twin peaks of Thamserku and Kangtega casting their silhouette on the clouds ahead. Really cool!
What do you need to travel like this?
Not much. There’s a bazillion resources out there about how to travel so I won’t cover everything, but here are a few points that we found obvious in hindsight but less so beforehand.
- Common sense! It’s really easy to avoid getting into bad situations, having your stuff get stolen, being scammed, or otherwise wasting your time and money. We spoke to a surprising number of travelers who had such issues and they always admitted it should have been simple to avoid. It doesn’t require extensive planning or savvy, just taking a moment here and there to think twice.
- An unlocked phone. In most countries it’s easy to get a cheap sim card (there are websites deciated to helping travelers pick one). It’s so helpful to have access to maps, messaging, reviews, rides on demand, etc. as you’re moving around. This isn’t truly a necessity but it does help make traveling more efficient and painless.
- A good camera. For a majority of our trip we left Elaine’s nice DSLR at home to avoid having to lug it around and protect it; in hindsight, we should have brought it (for South America, we did). We did okay with the Olympus TG-4 shooting in RAW, but were so happy to get the big camera back! It’s your preference what you bring, of course, but I’d say less clothing and more camera.
- Good shoes. Being comfortable walking on everything from city sidewalks to wet jungle to mountainsides is so important, and it’s really hard to find good replacements in a lot of the world! This goes for sandals too. I wore a pair of breathable Solomon trail runners everywhere and loved them.
- A water filter. Buying bottle after plastic bottle of water is terrible! First read about where you can drink the tap water – Patagonia, for example, has delicious and safe water everywhere. Otherwise, we often resupplied our bottles with a Sawyer mini filter we carried. This was especially useful in Nepal and Southeast Asia! Water purification tablets also come in handy.
- Sunscreen. Especially if you care about having something organic. Also it’s hard to find sunscreen in Southeast Asia that doesn’t have bleaching agents included.
- Sunglasses. Not as important or irreplaceable as good shoes, but getting there. Once you lose or break them, your options are cheap throwaway pairs that last a couple weeks or overpriced ones if you happen to find a mall.
- A decent backpack and day pack. We had nice lightweight REI Flash 22 daypacks that can roll up to almost nothing and are easy to wash. For our main bag we stuck with something carry-on size, which is a good idea even though we often checked our bags anyway; you don’t want to be lugging around anything larger. Definitely skip the wheels, a lot of the world is not rolling-luggage friendly.
- Adobe Lightroom? The not-so-secret trick to bringing out the best in photos. If you want to do anything beyond point, shoot, and share, it’s priceless for both editing and organizing.
What Don’t you need? Don’t overpack on:
- T-shirts and other cheap clothing. There is an abundance of inexpensive stuff throughout the world so it’s easy to get more, and synthetics are better anyway.
- Cleaning products. Soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste etc are dead weight to carry around and easy to find wherever you are, so you only need enough for a couple weeks at a time.
- Guide books. I’m happy reading books on a kindle but for a guide book it’s so much easier to have a physical resource to flip through. That said, they sure are heavy. If you’re going to hop around like we did, get one that covers a broad area, or hunt for the next one you need when you’re in a city stopover. We got our Japan guidebook in Bali and a safari book in Bangkok – city stores often have English sections.
- Cash. It’s good to have some backup USD which is as close to a universal currency as you can get, but it’s almost always easy to withdraw from local ATMs so your bank gives you the best exchange rate. And definitely no travelers checks.
Was the blog worth it?
Absolutely. I have several reasons. I like having a job to do, however menial – it lets me find a sense of accomplishment on what might otherwise be slow or fruitless days. Having the recurring task of photo editing and writing was satisfying, especially when the results came out really well (as they occasionally did). It also was a great tool for keeping friends and family up to date, and gave them a better story to follow than snippets on Facebook or Instagram. Finally, I’m really glad we made the effort to comb through our thousands of photos and clean up our favorites along the way – facing that task at the end would have been immensely daunting.
Thanks for reading!