December 31, 2012

323 Days Around The World

It’s a big world out there!

The more we traveled, the more we realized how little of the world we have actually seen. I know that may sound ridiculous, but it's true. Here's the map of countries we have visited together.

That's only 15% of the countries in the world! This number humbles us and reminds us that there is still so much more to see.

But while we may feel that the amount of land we covered is tiny in comparison to what's out there, we're pumped about how much culture we were exposed to. We have learned a lot about different kinds of people and about ourselves. We are bursting full of (random) observations, realizations, conclusions, memories, experiences, lessons, and spreadsheets...

Most stray dogs: Argentina
Most beautiful beach: Hill Inlet portion of Whitehaven Beach (Whitsundays, Australia)
Most beautiful ocean: Croatia
Best food: Spain (Katie), Italy (Steve)
Biggest surprise: Bolivia
Best hill towns: AndalucĂ­a (Spain)
Best tourist trap: Leaning Tower of Pisa (Italy)
Most friendly: Scotland
Biggest drinkers: Australia
Craziest drivers: Brazil
Worst roads: Cambodia
Most unique city: Venice (Italy)
Most livable city: Sydney (Australia)
Most over-rated city: Florence, Italy & Mendoza, Argentina (tie)
Best beer: Belgium
Best ice cream: Italy
Best pizza: Slovenia
Happiest people: Vietnam
Coolest church: Sagrada Familia (Barcelona, Spain)
Best waterfall: Iguazu Falls (Brazil and Argentina)
Craziest natural phenomena: Giant's Causeway (Ireland)
Strongest cultural identity: Vietnam 
Coolest currency: Australia
Best last-minute decision: Canyoning (Slovenia)  
Smallest people: Peru & Vietnam (tie)
Tallest people: Netherlands
Most unusual sightings: New Zealand
Most uncivilized event: Carnival (Brazil)
Worst thieves: Argentina
Most expensive: Australia
Least expensive: Thailand
Biggest mistake we almost made: not going to the Dolomites (Italy)
Weirdest moment: public restroom inside the bus station at 6:00am (La Paz, Bolivia)

There are foods that the rest of the world eats more than we do: aubergines (eggplant), beetroot (beets), and hard-boiled eggs. People who speak other languages mimic animal sounds differently: Cock-a-doodle-doo (English), Kuu-ke-le-kuu (Dutch), Coco-rico (French), Ki-ker-iki (German). And the countries where religion is strongest are also the countries who have next to nothing.

We noticed that globalization is changing the sacredness of local craft. We couldn’t buy Venetian glass, Thai silk, or French lavender without worrying that it actually came from China somewhere else. It's not that we would have ever known the difference, but the merchants rat each other out. We're absolutely certain that we ate microwaved lasagna in good restaurants in Italy…we're just not sure how many times.

One of the neatest things about traveling to another country is how much it teaches you about your own country.

From family mausoleums in Buenos Aires to cemeteries full of photos and fresh flowers in Italy and ancestor altars in Vietnam, it is clear that the rest of the world does a much better job of honoring their ancestors. We have a lot to learn.

Do you know how foreigners like to vacation in America? They rent the biggest SUV they can find and just drive it around. The California coastline is popular, as is the Louisiana-Florida-New York route, but that's not the point. The huge-ass SUV is the point. That's how they think they experience “American culture”.

In America, we pay people to be nice to us. It's called tipping. And it's pretty amazing to see how quickly smiles and helpfulness fade when people are working on a set scale.

We learned how passive aggressive Americans can be…mostly because tricks that used to work for us at home didn’t work for us on the road. As Americans we think that if we're promised something and we don’t get what was promised, someone needs to make it up to us. Other countries just don’t think this way. They say, “Too bad!” and walk away. Even in a highly developed country like Australia, our little passive aggressive hints weren’t enough to break through the cultural barrier.

I think how a culture enjoys a Sunday evening says a lot about its priorities. Most Americans mope around home on a Sunday night feeling sorry for themselves and depressed about having to go to work the next morning. Meanwhile, Europeans are out socializing in droves – enjoying their Sunday evening and soaking up every last minute of their weekend. I love my work ethic and I love being American. I love that people recognize us for these qualities. But I will also work harder to enjoy my days and not spend them worrying about tomorrow.

One thing that I've confirmed about myself is that I am 100% Type-A American. When trying to explain how much work Steve and I had to go through to organize our itineraries, hotels, transportation, activities, etc., a German friend of ours responded, “Typical American. Always busy.” He was so right. We put never-ending to-do lists on ourselves, but it’s hardly ever necessary. Over the summer this little motivational poster was making its rounds on Facebook. It's my new mantra.

When we were in London learning about British monarchs who have reined (and gotten themselves into trouble) for the past 400 years, it dawned on me that no matter what the century or culture, humans' universal motivators are always the same: love and power. 

There are other things, too, which are the same no matter where you are in the world: hippies, the smell as you walk by a Subway restaurant, and people’s obsession with California. These are rock solid.

At work I often reference the Good-Fast-Cheap model. It states that whenever you want something done, you can only choose two out of the three. It can be good and fast, but it’s not going to be cheap. It can be fast and cheap, but it’s not going to be good. It’s all about priorities, and on this trip, we learned quickly about priorities:

South America: Safe (sacrifice money to put yourself in secure locations)
Europe: Cheap (sacrifice location and style to stay on budget)
Australia & New Zealand: Speed (sacrifice sleep and money to cover lots of ground)
Southeast Asia: Clean (sacrifice good deals to avoid bugs, mold, and disease)

After contemplating the different continents and how they compare to each other, I'd say...South America is where you go to be culture shocked. Europe is where you go to be cultured. Australia and New Zealand are where you go to live and play. And Southeast Asia is where you go to be inspired. It left me thinking, what is America? The first thought that came to mind was, “America is HOME”. I write that with a humongous smile on my face.

The best word I can think of to describe the memories is “infinite”. In fact, sometimes when people ask me what a country was like, it takes me a long time to come up with a response. They must assume I either drank or slept through it all, but really, the awkward silence is just because I'm thinking. When I'm put on the spot, it's hard to process all of the memories, compare my experience in one culture to another, and feel like I'm doing the country justice. I can just feel my brain spinning.    

We were making such wonderful memories straight up until our flight took off from Saigon, and I'm beginning to worry that we didn't get enough time to process them. It all ended so abruptly and now I have a huge fear that I will forget all of my memories. I know deep down that this won't really happen, but it's a panicked feeling that I've experienced almost every day since we've been home. Somehow, we have to find a way to keep the memories alive!

When I began photographing our trip, I wanted it to be more journalistic than touristic. I wanted our photos to tell the complete story of our year. I didn't want pictures of only the pretty things. I also wanted pictures of the unusual things, the mundane things, and the funny things.

So when we're 90 and can't remember a thing, at least we'll have our photos and this blog.

The most popular question we get asked is, "What was your favorite place?" This is easy. 
New Zealand changed our lives. Our eyes saw things we thought only existed in storybooks. We learned how fulfilling it can be to live with next to nothing. And all of this allowed us to focus on our relationship like never before. When I picture us in New Zealand, I picture two kids holding hands, running, and giggling through the countryside. 100% pure happiness.  

The second most popular question is, "Which country would you not go back to." Well, there are lots of countries we’ll probably never revisit because (1) we feel like we saw them pretty thoroughly and (2) we have so many new places we want see. I'll put it this way…there is not a single country we went to that I wouldn't recommend. We were happy with all of them and we wouldn't have changed a thing.   

Here’s the list of our top 10 experiences:  
1. Living out of a campervan (New Zealand) 
2. Arriving at Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail (Peru) 
3. Hiking the Dolomites (Italy) 
4. Flying in a seaplane over the Great Barrier Reef (Australia) 
5. Exploring the ancient temples of Angkor (Cambodia) 
6. Camping at the Tour de France (France) 
7. Driving the Great Ocean Road (Australia) 
8. Spending the night in Ashford Castle (Ireland) 
9. Strolling Split, Hvar, Korcula, and Dubrovnik at night (Croatia) 
10. Indulging in bottles of wine and gelato in Capri, Sorrento, Amalfi, and Cinque Terre (Italy)

When we returned home, a dear and wise friend of mine told me, “It’s always great to hear about the beautiful sights and the delicious food, but what I am fascinated about the most is what influenced you as a person.”

It’s an understatement to say that we learned a lot this year, but the most important lessons we’re bringing home are the ones that we can immediately apply to…

OUR OWN LIVES: we've watched a lot of people around the world who are living extremely simple lives, and they are happy. I'm not saying that we’re going to go to their extreme, but there’s got to be a happy medium. We've seen the joy in a simple life. Un-glorify busy.

THE LIVES OF THOSE WE LOVE: after watching a devastated family in a Laos airport weep and literally hold each other up as they said good-bye to one of their loved ones, I realized just how important relationships are. They’re the most important things in our lives. We want to show those who we love, with our actions, just how much they mean to us. The more inconvenient, the more meaningful.

OUR RELATIONPSHIP WITH EACH OTHER: people love to ask us if we fought during the trip. Of course we did! We spent every waking and sleeping minute next to each other. But we learned a valuable lesson that I know will help our marriage for the rest of our lives. Whenever we found ourselves in a fight, it was never because of something bad that one of us had done to the other. It was because it was hot outside, or we were lost, or our backpacks were heavy. We were frustrated with the circumstances, not with each other. And as soon as we realized that it was outside factors causing the fight, the fight no longer mattered. We needed to work together to immediately get out of that situation.

OUR FUTURE CHILDREN: after observing other tourists for nearly a year, we are convinced that parents take their kids to grown-up places way too young. We understand the desire to culture children from a young age, but don’t the parents want to have a somewhat enjoyable vacation, too? Go ahead and judge us for judging them, but we were there and we heard the quotes…
"I hate today! It's the most boring day ever!5 year old at the Roman Forum
"I don't want to look at mud!"6 year old at the New Zealand thermal pools  

We successfully made it around the world in 323 days with no bed bugs, no food poisoning, and nothing stolen – aside from two luggage tags.

We did have one attempted purse snatching in Buenos Aires and one attempted Kindle snatching in Saigon, but both failed. The only harm we encountered was during week #2 in Salvador, Brazil during Carnival.  Steve was forcefully pick-pocketed among a crowd of thousands for a whopping $10. And while the physical nature of it was a little scaring at the time, we laugh about it now.

It’s pretty obvious to us why we were able to make it through the past year safe, healthy and happy. There were a lot of people praying for us…and there were many prayers said on our end, too. We also never let our guard down. There wasn’t a single hotel room we stayed in where we didn’t check for bed bugs. And even when he was relaxing, Steve always had our bag safely within his clutches. 

(side note: this picture makes me laugh because it’s an Asian hammock and it perfectly demonstrates how Steve was too big for everything.)

A week before we came home I actually told someone (and believed myself) that the U.S. uses 50-cent coins. Sometimes we struggle to come up with an everyday English word. And we have to think hard to remember what side of the road to drive on. It's going to take awhile to get completely back to normal.

The other day my mom asked me how we felt about the past year. Was it what we thought it would be? Did we do everything we wanted to do? The answer was easy…this year exceeded our expectations in every way imaginable. I think back to how nervous we were last January before we left. We knew something big was about to happen, but there's no way we could have understood how this trip would change our lives. I am very proud of what we were able to accomplish.

Now my burning question is…will I ever be able to shower without flip-flops again?

Transportation – 35%
Activities – 19%
Lodging – 18%
Food & Drink – 16%
Equipment – 6%
Paperwork & Visas – 2%
Medical – 2%
Souvenirs – 2%
Research – 1%

Countries: 25
Days: 323
Hotels: 147
Average number of nights in the same place: 2
Minutes we've spent together: ~ 463,680 out of 465,120
Meals eaten out: 875
Pounds Steve lost: 40
Weight of each backpack: 35 
Computer keys that haven’t worked for six months: 5
Edited pictures: 21,696
Languages: 17
Passport stamps: 36
Visas: 6 
Big bottles of sunscreen: 8
Big bottles of deet: 3
Average number of days in-between laundry sessions: 10
UNESCO World Heritage Sites: more than we can count
Car rentals: 10
Campervan rentals: 1
Motorcycle rentals: 3
Accidents: 0!
Parking tickets: 1
Speeding tickets: 1
Bird poopings: 4
Bee stings: 1
Friends and friends-of-friends who took us into their homes: 4
Familiar faces: 11
Happy globetrotters: 2

Before we left on our trip, we received advice from several of our friends to keep the countries to a minimum and spend a longer amount of time in fewer places. They were worried that we would exhaust ourselves. We decided not to follow their advice and to just do it our way. We knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we wanted to see as much of the world as we possibly could. We loved every crazy minute of it.

December 20, 2012

Completing The Circle

The only thing standing between us and home was a 30-hour travel day.

It's funny: would our "around the world" trip have felt incomplete if we had flown west to come home instead of east? Who knows, but we completed the circle nonetheless.

From Saigon we took a red-eye to Tokyo. Even though it was only 8:00am when we arrived, we managed to find a sushi restaurant serving food. We tossed back some oh-so-fresh raw fish for breakfast and sighed at how expensive food will be from now on.

We had been hearing reports from family and friends about the big winter storm hitting Denver and on its way to Chicago. We stopped by a gate counter to see if we could move up our Chicago to Columbus connection, and somewhere in the middle we wound up being upgraded for our 11-hour flight! We didn't even ask for it. I guess the ladies of All Nippon Airways were feeling generous that day.

We settled into our comfy section of the plane, ate strange Japanese airline food, and sipped on lots of red wine. Steve made friends with one of the flight attendants who secretly smuggled him extra ice cream.

Somewhere over the International Date Line we hit about 30 minutes of rough turbulence. It's moments like these when I'm glad I travel with an aerospace engineer. Steve would calmly explain to me why it was okay that I could look out the window and see our entire wing flapping like cheap plastic.

Flying east across the Pacific is always so strange. We technically arrived in Chicago before we even took off in Saigon.

Even as we entered American airspace and flew over cities that are so familiar to us, it still felt so surreal. I guess it's because we've been living the last year largely focused on the day in front of us. We're good at leaving countries, but our next destination never really hits us until we're actually on the ground.

In Chicago we had a sweet customs lady welcome us home and received lots of strange looks for wearing a tank top and flip flops in the dead of winter. We were able to move up our last flight to beat the storm and woofed down some Chicago pizza – our first American food in nearly a year!

Would you believe that we went all the way around the world without a single piece of lost luggage…until our final 1.5 hour flight from Chicago to Columbus? United Airlines reminded us that there's no place like home. 

Several people have asked us what we're most excited about when we get home. There are lots of trivial things: electronic toothbrushes, cheering for our favorite sports teams, using a foam roller, holding a dog, lying on a couch, the Today Show, leaving our shampoo and soap in the shower, having a wardrobe, throwing everything we own into a washing machine, putting our water bottles and toothbrush holders in the dishwasher, our favorite foods, a consistent pillow, and going to sleep in the same bed every night.

We're excited to find out what all we missed this year – we can count on two hands how many times we've watched TV. We're excited to find out what surprises us about our own country. We're ready to be out of the sun! I can't believe I'm admitting this, but we've been known to sport an umbrella on extremely sunny days. We knew it had gotten bad when we found ourselves walking in the shadows of power lines.

We want to go home and have our moms' cooking. We want to hug our families…and be hugged back. We want to take good care of our friends and show them how much we appreciate them. We want to rebuild our home again. We have been deprived of these things for a year, and we have fresh perspective about what matters to us. We have so much living to do!

In the past couple of weeks we have done a lot of reading about reverse culture shock. We wanted to prepare ourselves for some of the feelings we might experience when we get home. Honestly, it all sounds really depressing. I'm depressed just thinking about how depressed I'm told I'm going to be.

According to a bunch of other people who have come home after RTW trips, we will encounter the following:

(1) Lots of inconsequential observations like how big and bright the grocery stores are going to be, how expensive meals will seem, and how loud the conversations will sound.
(2) The realization that not much at home has really changed.
(3) A disdain for obligations and accompanying guilt for not wanting to commit ourselves so far in advance.
(4) Wanderlust.
(5) The realization that most people simply will not care about our trip.

This last one probably scares me the most. We promise not to start every sentence with, "When we were on our trip..." if you promise to sympathize with the fact that this trip HAS changed our lives and the experiences we've been through are not something that we can just turn off. Deal?

This reminds me how much I want to thank every person who has commented or written to us this past year about the blog. We have received so many sweet and encouraging notes from people letting us know how much they enjoyed following our journey. This really has meant so much to us. I have saved every single one of those notes and will reference them again on days when I'm feeling #5.

I suppose the prevailing piece of advice has been that, “It will be hard to get sympathy when everyone thinks you've just spent the last year having the time of your lives.” If you've read this blog then you obviously know about all the good times. But I certainly hope that you've also come away with insight into how much work it took. Maybe everyone pictured us like this:

But we felt more like this:

We did have the time of our lives, but the last year didn't feel like a vacation. Maybe after time has passed our perspective will change, but at this moment with the memories so raw, we feel like we should just be congratulated for “making it”.  

We've read that one of the best ways to curb post-trip blues is to plan another trip. We're actually really excited about traveling around the U.S. Yellowstone is at the top of our list, and it's only a 10-hour drive from Denver. Is it sad that 10 hours doesn't seem like a big deal?

We'd be lying if we said we weren't scared of the changes ahead of us. Even though we've been leading an unusual life, it's still our normal. We often wonder what life will be like when we get home. We've spent too much time thinking about it lately…too much anticipation. It's time to just get on with it!

What's next for us? We will be spending the holidays in Ohio with the Bremers. After New Years we'll be relocating from San Diego to Colorado to be closer to the Naumans. Katie received a sabbatical from her company and starts a new work-from-home position on January 23. Steve will begin looking for jobs in the Denver/Boulder area as soon as we get back. If you know of a company looking for a talented, charismatic, and hard-working aerospace engineer with a good suit, please let us know!

It's important to me that I also write a few sentences about how proud I am of my husband. Before this trip Steve had only been to three places outside of the United States: 
(1) Cabo San Lucas, Mexico – basically no different from the U.S. if you don’t leave the resort 
(2) Canada 
(3) U.S. Virgin Islands

He jumped into this trip with his eyes wide open. He took a bigger leap of faith than I did, and I am so proud of him.

We feel like people are waiting for us to say how this trip has changed us or our outlook on the world. We can't help but feel that we've changed, although it's hard for us to understand how or how much at this point. I think it will take some time back in our "normal" surroundings to get some perspective on what we’ve been seeing day-in and day-out. But if there's one thing I do know, it's that we've never been closer.