My answer to “so where are you from?” never feels completely honest.
Seattle doesn’t quite work. I don’t live there anymore nor do I plan to in the near future. Alaska is suspicious. I haven’t lived there for longer than 6 months in almost eight years. And just responding generally with “the U.S.” is met with an “I’m not an idiot, I can tell by your nasal accent. I mean what state,” kind of look.
But regardless of where home actually is (and I suppose it’s a mix of all three answers mentioned above), I’m heading back. Today.
It’s an odd development. For quite awhile now, there was too much time between the present and the trip’s completion to mention an end date. Telling fellow backpackers I’m a spontaneous traveler on a ceaseless journey gains reactions that stoke any ego. Saying I’m headed home soon, on the other hand, is comparable to mentioning I’ve just gotten a pink slip. It spurs a cocktail of reactions including pity, sympathy, and a flash of “so you’re giving up then, huh?”
I’m unsure whether it’s the fact that I’ve been gone quite awhile or that I know my return is imminent, but if coming home is comparable to receiving a pink slip, I feel like the guy from Office Space: I’m thrilled. Part of that excitement lies in my future plans yet to come. It’s appearing more likely that, similar to 2017, 2018 will also keep me largely outside of the U.S.
Thailand’s last week:
Meet Taab. Taab, a Southern Thai woman around my age, is a former nationally recognized Thai tennis player. For some odd reason, she chose Anchorage, Alaska, as the location for an international high school exchange program in 2009 and 2010. We met then on a tennis court. Seven years later, Taab showed enormous hospitality by serving as Brooke and I’s tour guide to Krabi’s islands, hot springs, and white sand beaches.
After a magical last night swimming among luminescent plankton under a full moon, Brooke headed home and I flew to Bangkok.
While here in Bangkok, I’ve done little more than what has become my most common activity on the travel trail: read. In my seven months, I’ve gone through 52 books.
First Book of the trip: Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, by Simon Baker
Last Book: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
Worst Book: I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined), by Chuck Klosterman
Best Book: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anothony Doerr
So, I guess that’s it for the blog. I’d think up a better ending, but that would mean the travels are ending here…
Thanks for following along. While posting to the blog has at times felt like a nagging responsibility, in total, my writing has been a valuable academic exercise, a chirping reminder to lead a story-worthy life, and a necessary opportunity for introspection.
I’m looking forward to seeing many of you soon.
As my trip around the globe nears its end, things are really coming full circle. After just occasional chitchat the past six months, Brooke recently sent me a text inquiring about my current location. Six messages and five hours later, she had a ticket to Bali. Four days later, my trusty Balinese Uber driver Alfonso scooped her up at the airport.
Since her arrival, we’ve dotted around the island to pristine rice paddies, thundering waterfalls, sacred Hindu temples and white sand beaches. As has been the case throughout my trip, a fellow traveler has significantly upped my enthusiasm for typical tourism activities. A photographic selection of our adventures below:
Brooke seems to have a knack for convincing me to do things I would otherwise not partake in (see paragliding in Switzerland). Given that all I’d heard about Bali’s Monkey Palace prior to our visit was that it’s a great place to contract rabies, this outing was proving equally dare devlish. Upon arrival to the monkey infested park, we looked in shock as tourists baited the apes on to their backs with bananas. Upon departure, we looked at the shock on arriving tourists’s faces who witnessed us doing the same.
Regardless of the park’s status as a photography jackpot, I remain skeptical of its safety. “So do I have to do anything about this monkey bite?” we overheard a tourist asking a park employee. I didn’t hear the employee’s response.
For those of you curious about Mount Agung, Bali’s bubbling volcano, I can only update that the mountain has been “hours away from eruption” for weeks. Thoughts on whether the lack of an eruption is a good or bad development for the Island’s 140,000 evacuated locals are mixed. At first glance, the volcano’s continuing calmness seems positive. But considering an eruption is eventually inevitable, the longer Agung waits, the longer the evacuated remain away from home.
As I’m currently writing from above 10,000 feet, it appears I’ve escaped the volcano’s grasp. Our plane is en route to Thailand. And then, in just 10 days, it’s back home to the US. In fact, this is the penultimate post. Stay tuned for one final update on enjoying Thailand’s world class beaches in the thick of monsoon season.
“What’s the worst thing that’s happened on your trip? Has anything gone horribly wrong?”
Fellow travelers pose me these rather morbid questions with surprising frequency. Luckily, my current response is a tame anecdote about mistakenly taking an Estonian bus 20 miles in the wrong direction. But as my trip comes to an end, I suspect that all this good luck will soon be equalized with a massive eruption of bad luck. Given that Bali’s Agung Volcano is smoking, causing 5.0+ earthquakes, and just 40km away, that eruption may be all too realistic. If and when it erupts, fear not: I’m staying well outside the 7.5km evacuation zone.
Part of what that bad-luck-eruption must equalize was my pre-Bali good luck at Hong Kong’s horse races. With Chef Tony as my guide and bidding adviser, I fared much better than during my Venetian gambling endeavors 6 months ago. The weak value of the Hong Kong dollar had me rejoicing over a $100 winning ticket until reminding myself that’s only about $7 USD.
After Hong Kong’s bustling urban neighborhoods, I welcomed Bali’s decelerated pace of life. The island attracts an eclectic mix of surfer bros, smiley locals, and my favorite subgroup: yogis. Yoga is a whole new game in Bali. Imply that the sacred practice is even remotely about fitness and prepare for a slap on the wrist. The practitioners dedicated enough to come to Bali are here not to stretch but to learn about things like “Shakras seven, eight, and nine which connect your body to the planets.” After a brief analysis of my birth date, my Yogi friends told me I’m on Shakra Eight…out of nine. Looks like that good luck may just continue.
While the Yogis are busy
sleeping meditating, the streets are anything but calm. Moped riding tourists dominate the roads. After a near death experience on one five years ago in Thailand, I’ve elected for more traditional methods of travel. Traditional, at least, by millennial standards. Bali has Uber. But I’ve learned to tread carefully utilizing this transportation method as well. After I asked my first Balinese Uber driver why his license plate doesn’t match the one listed on my phone, he relayed the following paraphrased warning to me:
The Taxi Mafia doesn’t like Uber. Sometimes, they will pose as a customer and request a car through the app. When the car arrives, they’ll pull the driver out and teach us a lesson. I lie about my license plate so I have an alibi if they catch me. Be careful, sometimes they get angry when they see customers calling Ubers too.
With the taxi mafia and erupting volcanoes close on my tail, I’m leaving Bali for another island. That miniature island, Gili Air, is known for its world class SCUBA diving. Its circumference can supposedly be walked in just 90 minutes.
“I expect a blog post dedicated solely to my arrival.”
Lezlee showed up. She’s my humble friend from Seattle.
To celebrate her arrival, we named a Chinese woman. In hopes of easing the pain synonymous with listening to English speakers butcher their names, the Chinese self anoint themselves an English title. For the rather drunk woman we chatted with at a bar, for reasons that continue to remain unclear, we elected “Quinn” to be an appropriate alias.
Another cross-cultural tidbit from the evening: Quinn’s boyfriend, when asked how he learned English, revealed straight faced that he gained fluency by “watching every episode of Friends at least 30 times.”
Shockingly, Lezlee and I didn’t just bother people at bars, but also did a commendable amount of tourism. The highlight of which was Zhangjiajie National Park. The unpronounceable natural landscape is best known as the set for Avatar. An Israeli couple served as worthy travel buddies for three days of zipping up mountains on cable cars and meandering down them by foot.
Luckily, it was not us but the Israelis who had a rather odd predilection for KFC and McDonald’s. But given the number of dumplings Lezlee and I ate, including about 15 every day at breakfast, we were in no position for judgement.
Little did we know, our gastronomical luck was soon to improve after a successful attempt at hitchhiking. Stuck in a national park in China is generally a position to avoid. Every bus driver that passed us waved back with a smile showing no recognition of our helpless cries for a ride. Finally, at the direction of his passengers, a taxi pulled over. Those passengers were two North American expats living in Hong Kong. One of them happened to be the Executive Chef at Hong Kong’s top Italian restaurant. We spent a day with them and wished them farewell, only to run into them at the airport two days later on our flight to Hong Kong.
Lezlee’s final day in China quickly devolved from an itinerary packed with sight seeing to a 3 hour bottomless brunch at the Chef’s restaurant followed by a local’s tour of Hong Kong’s nightlife. At the completion of the evening, Lezlee treated me to a 2:00am professional foot massage.
Realizing I needed some relaxation time after a foot massage that left me whimpering in pain, I booked a flight to Bali. Writing to you next from there!
Datong has ruthlessly wiped away any previously held notions I had fancying myself an experienced traveler.
The humbling began on the 6 hour and 38 minute train ride from Beijing. After two weeks on the Trans-Siberian, I anticipated the ride would be a habitual breeze. It was not a breeze and there was not a breeze. The train car was sweltering. Passengers lined shoulder to shoulder to fill every inch of every bench while standing room only ticket holders lined the center aisle.
Despite the objectively miserable conditions, the train car buzzed with conversation and camaraderie. Those who tried to include me quickly discerned my lack of Mandarin language skills. Throughout the ride, my white skin and American accented English combined to attract a steady stream of inquisitive stares. In addition to their gazes, my fellow train passengers also gifted me with a plethora of treats including 4 candies, 2 jam buns, 1 hand wipe, and a bottle of water.
Far away from the Forbidden City tour sales pitches of Beijing, Datong is a small city, at least by Chinese standards, of 3.3 million. The weakened proximity to Beijing only serves to strengthen the city’s language barrier. Nihao (Hello) and XieXie (Thank you) do not cut it. But as luck would have it, I befriended a gregarious band of six Italians, one of who spoke Mandarin. I sidekicked the Italians for three days and spent much of that time interrogating the group’s photographer about the inner workings of his homemade pinhole camera.
Rewind a moment. Before Datong, I went to the Great Wall. Photos below. But perhaps an even more technologically impressive feat for its time than the Great wall is China’s other wall: the Great Firewall. A visit to Twitter’s or Facebook’s URL will leave you believing the modern world’s love for social media was all a nightmare. The lead search result for “Tiananmen Square Massacre”? Tiananmen Massacre a Myth.
Let’s hope these admissions don’t exile my blog from inside the great firewall’s protection. Should my writings be deemed too provocative, my apologies in advance to my (admittedly non-existent) group of Chinese subscribers.
It’s back to Beijing.
Putin and I apparently share vacation destinations of choice. Just weeks before my arrival on Olkhon Island, he too had drank Siberia’s fake Italian wine and fished for the radiation-poisoned bottom dwellers in Lake Baikal. “But don’t worry,” soothes the government, “the fish are really just that big.” Locals disagree.
I can only hope the fish is more genuine than the wine. After corking a Tuscan red, a local warned us what our taste buds should have: $6 a bottle Italian wine is not available on Siberian shelves. We had a fraud.
My most consistently curious Russian interaction followed the answer to tourism small talk’s number one question:
“So where are you from?”
“Alaska,” I’d reply. (An answer highly preferable to “America”)
“You know, Russia used to own Alaska.”
The conversation then advanced in one of two ways. More pleasant was a half-joking comment that “Putin is coming for you.” Less pleasant was the not-joking-at-all comment that “Putin is coming for you.” A proud people those Russians.
One 6-hour border crossing and two meticulous train compartment searches later, we entered Mongolia’s capital: Ulaan-Baatar. Known as “UB” to expats, the city is the world’s most polluted due to the piles of coal residents burn during winter months. Unfortunately, the country’s polluting habits extend beyond urban population centers. Litter dots the country side: an odd juxtaposition against the scenic rolling hills.
The modern world is creeping up on Mongolia. Dirt bike cow herding, satellite dish topped yurts, and the worldwide loathed default iPhone ringtone are all common occurrences on the rural tundra. A true testament to the country’s modernization came at a tourist village recreating 13th century Mongolian life. Upon walking into a yurt staged to resemble ancient times, we interrupted a commercial shoot marketing Mongolia’s newest data plan.
One more lengthy border crossing brought us into China. Here, train tracks are narrower than their Mongolian and Russian counterparts. To accommodate the transition, workers detach the train cars from their wheels. Machine train jacks then hoist up the train cars 6 feet high while a locomotive changes out the wheels beneath.
Our arrival in Beijing marks the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Time to say bye to Mom. But soon, two more stateside friends join me for further Chinese expeditions. In the meantime, more chopsticking.
“An American passport in Russian hands: the dream of Putin.”
Words like these could only be spoken deep in the Siberian wilderness. But before we get there, one final day in Moscow highlighted by tourist activity numero uno: magnet shopping. Russians put their best foot forward when it comes to magnets. I managed to snap a few photos of their most creative offerings before receiving equally disapproving eyes from both the shopkeeper and my mother. Digital souvenir shopping is apparently frowned upon in these parts.
With a few tangible but guilt ridden magnetic idols in hand, we departed that evening on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. To those I force the stories of my travel itinerary onto, the Trans-Siberian seems to be the most intriguing leg. So it’s time to make an unfortunate disclaimer: I’m not actually taking the Trans-Siberian. Only the 5,772 mile journey from Russia to Vladivostok qualifies. Instead, our 4,735 mile trip is officially known as the Trans-Mongolian Railroad. But the term “Trans-Siberian” remains far more widely recognized and therefore “cooler.” I’m sticking with it.
Soon I’ll be talking up my travels in the past tense and will inevitably be forced to describe my Trans-Siberian experience in a succinct and insightful manner. A predicament… I could recall the twin blonde restaurant car servers or mention our delightful train car attendant Yelena (one of the most persuasive saleswomen of instant coffee I’ve ever seen). I could put on a wise face and regurgitate a New York Times article on Russia’s dwindling rural populations. Or even ponder the uncanny similarities between the Siberian and Alaskan tundras. But really, it’s best summed up like so: a really, really long train ride. I better keep brain storming that insightful answer.
At current time, we’re 90 hours in but only halfway done. This mid-point stop comes at Irkutsk which lies a short (at least after 3+ days on a train) 5 hour drive away from the world’s largest fresh water lake: Lake Baikal. The quote that started this lengthy blog post can be attributed to our Lake Baikal home stay host, Sergei, upon checking us in.
Lake Baikal’s natural beauty turns just about anyone into a worthy photographer. A selection below:
We reenter our 8′ x 5′ train compartment tomorrow evening in preparation for leg #2 to Ulaanbaatar, the Capital of Mongolia. Mongol culture is already sprouting up around us in the form of Yurts, Shamans, and owner-less cows. The journey from west to east continues.
In hopes of proving my loyalties to the bloodline (Estonians are skeptical of why anyone would vacation in Russia), I concluded my time in Europe with four final days in the small Baltic country I learned to call home throughout June. This time accompanied by Mom, the journey through Estonia was also a journey through our own heritage. We met three different sets of distant Estonian cousins, visited the house my Grandmother fled from during WWII, and posed in Estonia’s version of the White House. What’s a trip to any country without sitting at the Prime Minister’s desk mimicking a bill signing?
We got the private tour that allowed this photograph in part because of my great-great-grandfather’s status as the John Hancock of Estonia. Jaan Poska, my grandmother’s grandfather, signed Estonia’s Independence Peace Treaty in 1920. The pen ink is on display in the government complex amidst other famous Estonian keepsakes.
Next: eastward. Russia’s attitude toward Americans differs from that of Europe’s. Our nasal accents get occassional double takes on the streets. A shoulder is sometimes bumped. But given our rather tame activities as typical tourists, our behavior seems to have gone largely unnoticed by locals and authorities alike. Two close family friends from Alaska joined us for five days in Russia, one providing the additional cultural camouflaging advantage of her Russian language abilities.
While below St. Petersburg’s onion roofed cathedrals, the most notable peculiarities I gathered were jewelry related. First, the Russians encircle their necklines with crucifixes at an astonishingly high rate. Odd for a country where practicing religion was punishable by death for the majority of the 20th century. Second, wedding rings occupy the right hand ring finger. I have yet to confirm this on Wikipedia so maybe Russians just hate marriage as much as they like rings on their right hands.
A high speed train brought us to our next Russian hub: Moscow. The mode of transportation was a good warm up for the next leg of the journey beginning tonight: the Trans Siberian railroad. Unfortunately, the upcoming trains are not high speed by any definition. The 12 day, 4,735 mile journey to Beijing proceeds at an average speed of 40 mph. Internet access is bound to be sparse so updates upon arrival in the far east!
With my time in Europe quickly coming to a close, I embarked on a last minute whirlwind sprint around the continent. This high speed dash began with a decidedly low speed adventure: farming.
A friend from my volunteer time in Athens owns a small farm outside Brighton, England. This is no normal farm but instead, a bio-dynamic one. While I remain highly skeptical of the theories behind bio-dynamic farming (an emphasis on harvesting and planting in tune with the planetary alignments), the delectable vegetables are certainly a strike against my disbelief at a cosmological connection to the soil. A slight validation of my doubts did arise when upon voicing my skepticism, none of the farmers defended bio-dynamic farming’s more whimsical astrological themes.
What’s a final tour through Europe without a couple more bottles of French wine? A weekend stay with the aforementioned Frenchwoman proved an informative journey through France’s famous gastronomical varieties. I gorged on a myriad of delicious and dazzlingly prepared French delicacies after my host, a culinary marketing specialist, photographed her preparations for distinguished clients like Tupperware France.
My last stop in Europe, to visit another friend from Athens, was Berlin. 36 hours in the German capital resulted in zero photographs. Despite walking together for 13 miles one day, we neglected the Berlin wall. Sometimes good conversation is more valuable than another photo. And, I drank some German beer so maybe I got my Berlin tourist fix after all.
That’s a wrap on Europe. Well, not actually. I’m in Helsinki now. But after five days in Finland and Estonia with Mom, it’s off to Putin’s Russia and a painfully long train ride (15 days) to China.
Rewind 4+ months and 12+ countries ago to when I met Dan in Perugia. Dan’s an Australian but has recently taken up residence in London. With a scraggly beard and a man-bun that puts my own to shame, his pot-head appearance doesn’t match his devout evangelical faith. After hearing Dan’s stories of Londoners soliciting him for drugs, I at least know I’m not alone in my observations about his hippie-esque appearance. More on how Dan reenters the travel saga in a moment.
Wimbledon was reason #1 for my journey to the UK as some old college tennis teammates jumped the pond to join me. Of course, we lacked the foresight to purchase tickets online in advance so instead, we ventured into the famous queue. Or maybe infamous. We arrived at 5:50am on a Saturday morning only to learn we were #7,787 in line. Four Scottish friends, six bottles of Rose, and eight hours later, we bested the queue and gained entry. Tennis is cool but queuing is better. Who knew the British had the wherewithal to make line-standing convivial.
Invigorated by queuing part 1, I concluded my best plan of action from both a budgetary and entertainment standpoint was to find a tent and camp out at the Wimbledon grounds for two nights. I asked Dan (from paragraph #1) if he might have a spare tent. Thinking I would be homeless without him, he quickly offered me a stay in his guest room. With the option of a roof and a shower, I nixed the aforementioned Wimbledon part #2 plans and reunited with Dan.
It proved a fantastic decision for Dan’s tour guiding abilities are unparalleled. By day, he left me with detailed schedules of meal, tourism, and coffee destinations. By night, he took me out to restaurants, bars, and parks for Frisbee tossing. A short compilation of photos from the various adventures is below.
Finally, and who knows maybe it’s why Dan and I got along so well, we both had the same first impression of London. “Great Scott,” we independently pondered, “I’ve only been in London for five minutes and I’ve already seen a Double Decker bus!” Apparently, they actually use these Harry Potter evocative buses to shuttle real, live people around. The things you learn while travelling!
One more weekend in London with a British friend I met four years back in a Peruvian hostel. Then, it’s off to the Brighton farm home of a friend I met volunteering in Greece.