Reflections on Wandering

It’s now been over a month since we arrived back in the US. With a bit of distance from the whole experience, we wanted to take some time to jot down some of the major reflections and revelations. We plan to write a separate post on advice for people considering doing something similar that includes more practical info on logistics, budgeting, etc. For now, the more philosophical and abstract thoughts will have to suffice. Our apologies for the stream-of-consciousness style.

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The Final Run through Europe

The last 10 days of the trip were a whirlwind. We landed in Budapest then made for Prague before finally ending up in Berlin. Consistent with our expectations, it was easy to be in Europe but also a bit less exciting. We were happy with our decision to spend relatively little time there on the trip. Focusing on "hard to get to and hard to get out of" places was a good strategy. But, Europe is still a great place to visit, so here's a quick rundown. 

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Turkish Delight - Istanbul Edition

Istanbul had been both of our "must-visit" lists for years and we were both excited to spend 10 days in the city. Having such a long time and a single AirBnB to unpack meant that we actually were able to experience the city rather than fly through it. We absolutely needed it. The city is absolutely enormous and there is just so much history, culture, food, etc. to experience. Compared to the rest of Turkey where we had been in highly touristy areas, Istanbul was our first chance to get off the beaten track. Below I give a best, worst, and funniest breakdown of our time in this amazing metropolis. 

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Turkish Delight - Cappadocia Edition

After getting our cultural fix in Ephesus we headed to Cappadocia to see the crazy moonscapes that everyone talks so much about. After arriving by plane and then driving another hour to Goreme, we agreed that it would've been insane for us to try and get there via car. Turkey's internal flights may be hellishly cramped, but at least they were quick and affordable. A few thoughts and highlights below.

 

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    Turkish Delight - Ephesus Edition

    Turkey had been on both our "must-see" lists for a long time and so it was with great anticipation we arrived in Istanbul. We had three weeks to spend in the country. You'd think we'd have planned out our time (or at least I would have given my over-planning tendency) but no. We landed in Istanbul with no idea what to do for 8 days before our AirBnB apartment was available. So, as 21st century travelers worn down by five months of decision-making, we turned to social media to make our decision for us. Fortunately, our friends/family obliged and we decided not to do a road trip (too far in our time span) and not to go to the beach (too cold). Instead we did a quick stop in Selcuk to see Ephesus and then flew to Cappadocia for some exploring. 

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    Israel - Time in the Holy Land

    From the moment we stepped into Israel, we knew it was a different place from where we'd been for the last four months. We left the sweltering Jordanian customs facility and walked across the 100m of no-man's land separating the two countries before we entered the intensely air-conditioned Israeli customs check. I had been nervous about this crossing for a while but it actually went very smoothly. The officials grilled Whitney, who went before me, and then I walked up and basically said, "I'm with her." The funniest part of the whole interaction was the fact that the Israeli border checkpoint felt like a new MTV show called Real World: Israeli Defense Force edition. Everyone working there was between the age of 18-24, all were tan and wore distressed denim. It's as if Hollister teamed up with the makers of M16s for new concept store. This stood in stark contrast to most other border crossings in the world that are manned by surly middle-aged bureaucrats who grunt at you before stamping your passport.

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    Jordan - Indulging the Indiana Jones Fantasy

    Arriving in Amman was one of those moments when you have to be amazed by modern air travel. In the course of 24 hours we flew from the roof of the world in Nepal to the desert of Jordan (changing planes in Muscat, Oman where there was a Dairy Queen manned by appropriately surly staff).

    We disembarked in Jordan and went through one of the oddest customs procedures of the trip. First, it's really expensive to get a visa into Jordan. Almost as expensive as India. Second, they didn't ask anything about how long we were going to be in the country, where we were going, etc. We handed over cash, some words were mumbled, and they provided us stamps. Yes, actual stamps, not the modern ink-based equivalent used in the rest of world. Our passports now have small, rectangular stamps in them from Jordan. How vintage. 

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    Nepal - The Roof of the World

    Ah, Kathmandu. After 18 days in India, the tall mountains, cool air, and relative uncrowdedness of Nepal’s capital city was like a balm to our travel-weary souls. Or it was, for about the 5 minutes it took us to disembark the plane and make it through customs.

    Upon exiting the airport, however, we spotted Santosh, our guide from Outshine Advenures, the man who would be leading us through the treacherous “foothills” of the Himalayas for the next 14 days. But more importantly, he saw us. And his face fell infinitesimally. And suddenly we were forced to take stock of ourselves.

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    Goodbye Himalayas

    A quick update that we are alive and well! After 10 days without any connectivity (my longest ever), we're back in Kathmandu, headed to Jordan in a few hours. We had a great trek and successfully made it to Annapurna Base Camp. A much more detailed run down to follow, but for now, here is a picture of us at Base Camp!

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    India - Backpackers' Vegas: Great to Visit, Happy to Leave

    India. We have a love-hate relationship. There are times I loath you, like when a drunken taxi driver almost kills us, and times I adore you, like when I cut into a Goan king fish straight out of the tikka. More than anywhere else, you are a place of extremes. The service is either atrocious or people treat you as if you are family (literally, in the case of procuring an Indian SIM card). The scenery is both gorgeous, untainted beaches and mountains of trash complete with rabid dogs and leering men. So, after two and a half weeks, we're ready to part ways. Will we meet again? Almost certainly, but not for a while and next time I'll bring more hand sanitizer.

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    India - The First 24 Hours

    I've spent most of this trip convincing Whitney that India isn't too bad. She says, "But you were so sick last time" and "Didn't you feel like everyone was trying to rip you off." I respond by saying, "Yes, but it's still really cool." To me, visiting India can sometimes feel like how people describe their time in Teach for America... "Amazing, but I'd never do it again." Or maybe it's like the backpacking equivalent of pledging a frat. You  endure sometimes hellish conditions, putting God knows what in your mouth, all the while with a smell of fecal matter lingering in the background. But in the end, you're glad you did it. 

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    Myanmar

      

    Myanmar was a place that both of us were excited to visit since it only recently became easily accessible to tourists. The place is changing at an unbelievable pace. We had a Lonely Planet that was a few years out of date and it suggested that we bring the entire budget for our trip in crisp $100 bills (2006 series or later). Given our tendency to plan things “on the fly", this posed a bit of an issue. We arrived at the Bangkok airport departures area with about $40 in distinctly un-crisp bills, and realized that there was no ATM. A major panic ensued in which we scrambled to contact a friend who was living in Yangon, and to check online forums for an update on the cash situation. Turns out, ATMs are pretty much everywhere in Myanmar (even in Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important religious temple for Myanmar Buddhists). This was indicative of the place as a whole. We were expecting development just slightly above North Korea, and in reality, it’s a reasonably developed place that is quite easy for backpacking. Buses were clean and generally on-time. Hotels were ludicrously expensive ($55 for a dismal double with no window in downtown Yangon), but easy to find/book online. English was widely spoken. People were helpful and honest. In fact, one of the defining things about Myanmar for us was the lack of "tourism fatigue" suffered by the people we encountered. Across the board, everyone we met was friendly, welcoming, and genuinely wanted to get to know us and tell us about themselves and their lives. All in all, the country we expected to find most challenging was, in many ways, the most pleasant.

      

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    Southern Laos Adventures

    After the countless temples, excessive heat, and constant barrage of touts in Siem Reap, we were admittedly a bit relieved to find ourselves en-route to Pakse, a one-horse town in Southern Laos that would be our jumping off point for a week of relaxation and adventure.

    Pakse was like nowhere we’ve been before or since. Imagine, upon landing in a new country in Southeast Asia, you find yourself suddenly transported to an American wild-west frontier settlement straight out of 1850. Pakse is a town of red-dirt roads, macho dudes in low-slung dungarees and cowboy hats, and old-west-saloon-style facades. We half expected a gunslingers’ duel on the main street, and Trinh and I giggled for minutes when we saw a plastic bag somersault across the road like a 21st century tumbleweed.

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    Saigon Motorbike Foodie Tour

    A bit worn down from the day’s somber activities (see earlier post), we were slightly regretting the comprehensive 4.5-hour foodie tour of Saigon by motorbike we’d booked for that evening. But when our intrepid guides Thuy and Vy came by the hotel to pick us up, we knew we’d made the right decision. They were energetic and talkative and passionate about their tour. They told us they would be leading us through 5 different districts of Saigon, with stops in each to explain the different cultural, economic, and of course, gastronomic features of each area. They told us at the outset that this would not be Saigon the way that tourists usually see and eat it: no District 1, no pho, no bahn xeo, no bahn mi. What’s left, you ask? As it turns out, some seriously weird and delicious stuff.

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    Cambodia - A Busy Week

    Note, we have more Cambodia pictures than this, but had a memory card issue, so bear with us. For now, it will be a text-driven blog post.

    After all of the fun of Saigon and relaxation in Hoi An, it was time to head to Cambodia. We took the bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, arriving a day before our friend Steven was to meet us from NYC. It was a particularly romantic Valentine’s Day, spent on a 7 hour bus ride, but all things considered it was pretty painless. We arrived and I stopped by a make-shift floral station where a small army of Cambodian woman were assembling bouquets. After haggling fairly half-heartedly (it seemed a weird thing to get aggressive about) I paid for a bouquet, picked up a bottle of wine, and returned to our hotel. Whitney and I enjoyed the wine on the roof overlooking a glimmering pagoda before heading out to a beautiful candlelit dinner. Where was said dinner? The local burrito place. It was possibly the most satisfying meal I’ve had in years. It’s amazing how delicious Mexican food tastes after a prolonged period of noodles.

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    Phuket and Beyond

    Southeast Asia is a truly awesome place to backpack. The accommodation is reasonably priced, the beer is cheap, the food is delicious and the people are nice. But as any backpacker will tell you, at some point, you need to go sit on a beach in Thailand. Other countries have beaches, but there is something about the Thai beaches that keeps drawing people in, year after year. Perhaps it's the abundance of scantily clad Russian tourists, who insist that Moscow winter is much worse than NYC. Maybe it's the massage parlor on every corner. Whatever it is, we succumbed to the urge and flew to Phuket after crossing the border from Vientiane.

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    Backpacking Fail

    Yesterday was one of those moments when you have to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror and admit that you're not as hardcore as you thought you were.

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