Thursday, September 30, 2010

Final Report

A Summary of Our Trip Around the World

Trip dates: October 1st 2009 to September 27th 2010
Countries visited:18
Longest Country Stay: India- six weeks, Indonesia, Syria, Tanzania, Cambodia- one month each
Shortest Country Stay: South Korea and Holland-four days each, Israel and Rwanda- 8 days each.
Places stayed: 125 (110 hotels and 15 homes)
Daily Average Cost For two travelers: $75

How much of this did you plan before you left?
Juliah: We had airfare that went around the world, stopping in five places and then brought us home. The dates of our ticket were flexible so we didn't have to know the dates of our trip which helped us be more spontaneous. We bought several other plane tickets en-route.

Mark: Both of us were excited about taking this trip, but Julie invested much of her Netflix share in travel documentaries. Booking our multi-stop round-the-world ticket with United Airlines was an unrivaled frustration: Julie and I would plan a route on the hallway map, then I would call United booking agents and run their gauntlet of robot switchboard operators. Agents would tell us that available carriers wouldn't take us to certain airports, detours would run over our allotted mileage, a rough draft of an itinerary would be formed, and then the Ratings Department would call us back two days later to inform us that the flight didn't meet preconditions for special pricing. United's website wasn't set-up to book this kind of flight, and all stages had to be booked over the phone. In all, I estimate I spent 9 to 12 hours on hold and speaking to United Agents.

In the last few days leading up to the trip, we went on shopping sprees for essential supplies we didn't think we could find abroad: contact lens solution, sunscreen, bandages, a miniature speaker system to amplify the iPods. We'd haul our loot to the living room and spread it our in piles, then practice packing it into our bags. We lost or discarded much of it in our first month of travel, when we realized neither of us wanted to be hauling 40 lbs on our backs.

Visas weren't a concern, as I was sure we'd be able to secure them at the border crossings, but we'd planned our time in Indonesia to run just over the maximum allowance for Western tourists, and that was a problem. This required two trips into San Francisco to get an advance visa with the Indonesian consulate.

How did you know how to do this?
Juliah: In preparation and sheer excitement I read travel blogs and watched way too many travel documentaries. For three years, I visited the public library on my lunch break and checked out travel books and covertly stashed them in my cubicle drawer for the subway ride home. Many books have been written on how to plan long trips- many quite useful. I spoke to anyone from anywhere or who had been anywhere (Most people love to talk about their big trip or home country). We put up a map of the world in our apartment and put pushpins in it for the places we wanted to go. For years we bored our friends with the rain cycles in India and the best ways to get to Senegal.

But really, you don't need to know how everything is going to play out. If you give yourself enough time, you can really figure most things out. Once you start your trip you can ask lots of questions and make plenty of observations. When we left we knew how to get to from the airport to our hotel in Seoul, Korea. Everything else was easy to figure out en-route.

Mark: I had taken a similar trip about 8 years prior, just after two years of teaching in Japan. The 24 year-old me was way more disorganized than the 33 year-old version, so I knew we'd be able to compensate for any lack in planning once we were on the road. There were places I'd been before where I felt a connection to the land--Laos and Cambodia, especially--and places I'd seen briefly and wanted to explore more in depth, like the Middle East. And there were places I knew nothing about, but was very excited to explore, like East Africa. Once Julie and I had committed to the idea of the trip, defining a loose itinerary wasn't too hard.

How did you afford this?
Juliah: The whole year long trip, airfare and all, cost us about $33, 000 for the both of us. Not including our original airfare package that's about $75 a day for the both of us. We could have spent less by doing fewer things. But in the end we decided that the time was also the factor- we may not be back to some of these places for quite a while. So it seemed like a shame not to stay in a nice hotel, dive or go on safari while we were in these amazing places. We could have also saved some money by focusing on fewer places and therefore taking fewer flights. But the temptation was just too great. When was I going to be invited to Bhutan again? When is the next time I will be this close to Sri Lanka?

We scrimped and saved. We stayed in and ate lentils and watched movies at home rather than going out in New York City. When we left we gave up our apartment and sold all of our stuff. If you aren't paying rent or storage fees, you have lots more savings to play with.

Mark: We also worked really hard in the three years leading up to the trip! Julie tutored after school, and I worked overtime and second jobs. I put away about 15 to 20% of my take-home pay into a liquid cd account, where it accumulated more interest and I knew I'd be unable to access it.

Best thing about traveling for a year:
Juliah: In the end, I absolutely loved having all that time. Taking time off made for the most fantastic year ever. However, at first it was absolutely daunting. I remember arriving to a small island in Indonesia and feeling like I needed to do something big and monumental with the time- I had a year, gosh darn it, and I ought to do something useful with it. I should be moving towards a goal or at least a cohesive final project. The island was 4 kilometers around. You could hear the ocean from the very middle of it. The only vehicles on the island were donkey carts. There wasn't much to do there.

When I couldn't figure out how to make a big project of this travel plan from my small island in Indonesia, I decided not to worry about how all the pieces fit together into a cohesive experience- instead I would let each day be what it wanted to be. Then I really started enjoying myself. One day found us dodging blood splatter of a buffalo sacrifice at a funeral in Indonesia, while another day was spent bouncing through the tea plantations on an over crowded Sri Lankan bus, clutching a stranger's avocado tree on my lap. One evening we canoed on the Kerala backwaters in southern India, our hosts singing and pounding their oars in growing darkness. Another evening we smoked apple flavored tobacco, drank frozen lemonade and played backgammon until 2 am in a second story cafe in the capital of Jordan.

A year really gives you time to follow your curiosity and not stick too tightly to a schedule. Having enough time lets you wander until you find the freshest black pepper in a market in Cambodia. You can stop and join the locals for tea in the Middle East instead of rushing on to the next set of ruins. One time we spent an hour on the beach in Zanzibar helping a fisherman dig for worms. Another time we asked a guest house owner in Sri Lanka if we could help her make dinner and learn how she cooked. Having enough time means not just seeing the major temples in Bhutan but also hanging out at the archery field in the afternoon to watch locals shoot arrows at a skate board sized target from a foot ball field away with amazing accuracy.

Being able to see many places lets you make interesting comparisons. . In Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa the word for tea remains "chai." Meanwhile, only Rwandans practice the two handed wave. Men in India wear Lungis (a plaid cloth that wraps like a skirt) which is rather similar to the Indonesian sarong that Balinese men wear.

What were some things we saw over and over? Lets just say many people on this planet enjoy World Wresting, wearing skirts, people make mainly organic trash and really nobody bothers owning a dryer. Oh, and lots of people eat eggs. How is that for sweeping generalizations?

Worst thing about traveling for a year
Juliah: Fatigue. Traveling this long can be tiring. Imagine if the direction of traffic changed every three weeks, if you were never quite sure when to cross the street. Imagine if you had to learn how to greet people over and over and if you weren't sure if you were being polite or not. It's exhausting to always be an outsider and never completely understand the rules.

After a while seeing the "must sees" feels like a chore rather than an enjoyable activity. Ruins, museums, palaces, temples- once you have seen a handful its not easy to get excited about the next dozen or so. "We don't have to do anything we don't want to" became our mantra. Although we enjoyed Petra, we were exhausted after one day. So we forfeit our two day ticket to return to Amman and play backgammon in our favorite cafe.

A good cure for travel fatigue was downtime. Laundry, e-mail, games, reading all became activities central to our lives. We learned to wash our clothing by hand and hang it all over our hotel room to dry. When you have no home, washing your three shirts in a hotel sink with bar soap becomes a very comforting activity. Some days we lingered over breakfast with fellow travelers. Some evenings were spent drinking beer on hostel roofs. I read more leisure books this year than ever. Sure, I didn't have to be in India to read books and play dominos, but reading books and playing dominos let me be in India and actually enjoy it.

Posting pictures and journaling was a good way to recharge and reflect on my experiences. When I wrote about what we had done I realized that we were indeed doing some amazing things. Having people see and respond to our pictures and posts validated that even more.

I did get really really tired in months 11 and 12. The answer was to move more slower and enjoy something different. Slow and different meant learning to paddle a dugout canoe around a lake in Uganda. We watched a multitude of birds along the shores of the many islands and marshes. We also combated fatigue by doing more home stays and enjoying spending time with local people. I was too tired to see the local museum in Kisumu Kenya, but I was eager to help Mama Okech pluck and clean a chicken for that night's dinner and then watch cartoons with her grandkids in a nearby village. When we were too lazy to contemplate going to another genocide memorial in Rwanda, we were still excited to go hiking with Eva, a German woman working in Rwanda.

Mark: Travel fatigue was a pretty constant stressor. After three months of moving, I'd look at a calendar and think, "Jesus! We have 9 more months of travel." When we'd been gone 5 months, I'd wonder how we'd pull off the next 7 months together. We missed familiar friends, routines, and comforts, and the unrelenting togetherness of the trip got to the both of us. No doubt, this journey brought us closer to each other, but many mornings we'd wake up and read the same expression on each others' faces: "What, you again???"

What went wrong on the trip:

Juliah: Nothing that we ever worried about. We accidentally left our warm clothing on an overnight bus to Bangkok. We spent a sleepless night in the Calcutta airport on our way to Bhutan. At two am we realized that our hotel room had bed bugs. When we tried to cross into Egypt we were turned back to Israel to get a visa. I dropped my camera in a lake and didn't get to use it to take pictures of chimpanzees the next day. Our cheap cell phone went missing from an unlocked tent at the source of the Nile in Uganda (This was the only theft we experienced). These things sure were annoying when they happened- but they certainly were not major. We were able to remedy most situations.

Mark: I left my iPod on a train in Month 5: a good argument for never taking sleeping pills on an Indian train, no matter how difficult a time you have nodding off. We dealt with minor frustrations and lost items, but this happened rarely, since we had so little to lose. The best remedy to setbacks was patience, and over the course of the trip we became more patient than I'd thought possible.

Injuries and Sicknesses
Juliah: A monkey in Bali pulled out my earring, causing my ear to bleed. The earring was recovered. Yes, i wore it after it was in a monkey's mouth.
I got so sick in India that I couldn't lift my head to adjust my pillow.
I spent my first three days in Beirut in a benadryl coma due to the massive mosquito bites that covered my face and neck and made it look like I had been beat up.
My eyes swelled shut from bed bugs bite in Jordan.
In Rwanda I fell in to a waist deep drainage gutter and cut up my feet.

Mark: I supported Julie when a monkey pulled out her earring in Bali, when she was sick in India, when her face swelled up like a bag of hot chocolate marshmallows in Beirut, when she had bedbugs in Jordan, and when she fell into a drainage ditch in Rwanda.

Actually, Julie was a tough-as-nails champ when it came to injuries, and most of the time I had no idea she was hurting. I was kind of a baby when it came to very minor but persistent ailments. I had pretty severe allergies that followed me for most of the year. I suffered a centipede bite (painful and scary, but not dangerous) and had a high fever in Varanasi, India. The rest of the year I was in remarkably good health, compared to all the years I spent in the teeming petri dish that is elementary school education.

Are you still speaking to each other?

Juliah: Yes
Mark: Depends who's asking. Is Juliah asking?

Would you do it again?
Juliah- yes! yes please. I would visit fewer places the next time though and go much more slowly. I might even invite Mark to join me.

Mark: A year is a long, long time, and I don't think I have it in me to reenact another 365 days homeless, wandering travel. That said, there are plenty of other adventures I have in mind... an apartment in Phnom Penh, a 6 month language course in Damascus, bicycling across America, and the Appalachian Trail. I don't think we'll ever be done traveling.

Mark and Juliah