Posted by: Tommy | October 6, 2011

A (TV) Guide to One Year on the Road

One year ago today, we loaded our shiny, new backpacks into the trunk of a Dallas cab, heading for DFW airport to wait (4 hours – our first delay) on a flight to London, then on to Moscow.  One year later, our backpacks are stinky and beat-up (mine’s been repaired twice), we are a lot more knowledgeable about geography and world politics and we wouldn’t bat an eye at a 4 hour delay.  During those long delays, we’re happy to have a laptop filled with some of our favorite TV shows.  We don’t get to watch anything new, but sometimes our trip   provides it’s own, tv-style entertainment.

“Survivor”

One of our favorite shows doesn’t necessarily lead to our favorite travel experiences.

KalahariGetting our truck stuck in the mud for the second time in one day was bad enough.  But being forced to spend the night, covered in mud, bleeding and blistered with only a bag of apples to eat pushed our Kalahari experience to Survivor levels.

Eating snails, fried grasshoppers and fried rat. – Along the way, we’ve had “opportunities” to eat some really strange stuff.  The weirdest has to be the fried rat, but the snackfood fried grasshoppers and the muddy snails were right up there as well.  The fried rat was surprisingly tasty – like BBQ pork ribs.  I can’t say the same for the snails.  If we manage to eat dog here in China (a possibility – we’ve seen it on a few menus and Anna saw it at the market), it would obviously top this list.

Mmmm, delicious grasshoppers.

Mt. YasurThis makes the list because it was actually on Survivor.  And it fulfilled expectations.  Visiting Mt. Yasur was a worthy reward for the challenge of getting to Tanna, Vanuatu.

When Animals Attack

Monkey, India – Easily the scariest animal encounter we’ve had.  Seeing  a 4 ft. tall simian leap over a wall, fangs bared, and running toward you is a lot scarier than being charged by an elephant while in a car.

Triggerfish, ThailandThe double whammy of losing our dive guide for the first time and being attacked by a massive, aggressive, toothy fish had my heart racing, though my initial size projections (easily 4 feet!) might have been a tad high, on further reflection.

A triggerfish, this one is from Vanuatu and didn't attack us.

Mouse in the bed, Singapore – Anna has definitely been the ‘more victimized’ of the two of us.  If you asked her to name the worst “animal encounter” of the trip, she’d quickly tell you that sleeping with a mouse was worse than being attacked by the monkey or the triggerfish.

But for my money, the worst attack was the crown of thorns in Fiji.  While it’s only sort of an animal and it only attacked her because she stepped on it, it had the most long-term effects.  She couldn’t really walk normally for 3 weeks, forcing us to adjust our plans.

The Real World

Much like the cast of the Real World, you can’t always choose who you’re spending time with, especially when you’re budget traveling.  We’ve gone out of our way to avoid the 19 year old British gap year party crown (except in Thailand, where it’s unavoidable) but we’ve still managed to have a few Real World-style run ins.

Finnish bikers, St. Petersburg, Russia – The second city of the entire trip remains the gold standard for bad hostel experiences.  We’ll never forget being awoken at 4am by 6 huge, leather-clad, tattooed Finnish bikers flipping on the light, passing a bottle of Johnnie Walker around while staging impromptu sumo matches in the middle of the room.  But hey, it was so egregious the hostel put us in a private room for the last 3 days and I didn’t feel the least bit bad when they incorrectly marked us down as paid.

Phil Harker, couch-surfing host, Brisbane, Australia – We liked Phil, but he was quite a character.  You can’t expect a Couchsurfing host to do more than Phil did for us.  He drove us around, let us borrow his Lexus (after knowing us for nearly an hour), and played tour guide for 3 days.  But he also told the tallest tales we’ve ever heard.  His story about diving down 30 meters in a lake with no scuba gear, but using an asthma inhaler to breathe would be the most ridiculous thing we’ve heard on the trip.  If he hadn’t also told us his story about how he was naked and saved the life of a French girl (also naked) who had her kidney stolen in the bathroom of a hotel in the Philippines.  Oh, and he was naked.

Phil and his friends with us in Brisbane

Two Italian guys, Valley of the Queens, Luxor, Egypt – These guys were in our hotel, but that’s not where we were unhappy to be stuck with them.  They were also on our guided, 4 hour tour of the Valley of the Queens in Egypt.  We had 4 hours with a guide and about 12 tourists, driving around to see 4 of the most impressive sites in Luxor.  While the rest of the group had no problem abiding by the timeline set by the guide, these two Italian guys insisted on staying in each tomb for an hour, waiting for an opening so they could take illegal photographs.  They were so obnoxious that after 2 hours, the tour guide loaded everyone else into the bus and we left them behind.

The Amazing Race

Any given day reminds us of the Amazing Race.  But these days maybe a little more than others.

Capetown airport The large sign behind the check-in counter for Qatar Airways proclaimed a closing time of 1 hour before departure.  As I called our Capetown hostel every 15 minutes, frantically wondering where Anna was, I knew that all was lost.  I’d already spoken to Qatar Airways and been informed that rescheduling our ticket for the next day would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1800 – or, our entire budget for 6 weeks in India.  After pleading, begging and cajoling, the desk agreed to stay open for an extra 15 minutes.  So when she showed up, 14 minutes into the extra time, I felt like we’d just avoided elimination.

Gorge Swing, Livingstone, ZambiaAnother experience that makes the list because it was on the actual show.  We also thought about a Fear Factor section that would feature the Gorge Swing, but nothing else came close to this for sheer terror.  And exhilaration, mostly when you realized that you didn’t die.

Freefall at the Victoria Falls Gorge Swing

Trying to find the market in Guangzhou, China – One of the things you learn when watching The Amazing Race is that asking pays off.  Not many people speak English in China – probably the fewest (percentage-wise) of anywhere we’ve been, including Russia.  But, trying to find the Yi Sen leather goods market in Guangzhou, we used our best Amazing Race skills and asked at least 3 dozen people to help us until finally one of them understood.  And, as always happens on The Amazing Race, she dropped what she was doing to drag us along and show us exactly where we needed to go.

“Punkd”

We’ve definitely gotten ourselves into some situations where we expected Ashton Kutcher to jump out and tell us he’s messing with us.

Moscow money – After being 12 hours late and losing a bag in transit, we managed to just miss the Moscow train into the city.  The airport ATMs weren’t working, so we handed all of our US dollars over to a cab driver for a $100 ride to our hostel.  Then the ATM there ate our
card.  We spent the next day wandering around for 7 hours, trying to find an ATM that would give us rubles.  Ruslan Kim! was our Ashton Kutcher that day, getting us on the phone with Capital One so they could unfreeze our accounts after an unscheduled sandwich purchase in London got our access blocked.

This one's for the ladies!

Air Pacific – The comedy of errors that led to us, along with 30 other people being stuck in the Nadi, Fiji airport at 2:30 am with no hotel and no airline employees was written about just a few days ago. Going from the airport in Vanuatu to a 4 star luxury resort to stranded in the Fiji airport 30 hours late had us looking for hidden cameras.

Missing Thanksgiving for Addis Ababa  – Johnson and Anita, at Anna’s request, spent their weekend before our visit preparing a much-anticipated Thanksgiving feast of duck, mashed potatoes and other yummy holiday treats.  That they shared with their friends in Johannesburg, because we were trapped in Ethiopia.  Despite 50 passengers transiting through Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Jo’burg being delayed 15 minutes on the flight from Cairo, Air Ethiopia decided not to hold their only flight to Jo’burg that day.  We spent the morning
waiting on an entry visa for Ethiopia, the afternoon in our airline-provided hotel and the next day at the doctor’s office in South Africa, dealing with something I picked up in Addis.

Cribs

It hasn’t always been budget travel for us.  Sometimes, someone else is paying and we get to stay somewhere uniquely luxurious.

The Alila, Goa, India When Sarah Halloran wanted to come travel with us, we warned her that we traveled on a budget.  She was welcome to stay in a proper hotel, but we’d be looking for cheap options.  She was a trooper and agreed to stay with us in hostels or whatever else we’d find, so long as we spent the last 3 days of her stay in a proper 5-star resort.  Which she’d spring for.  Who are we to ruin her vacation?

Sydney Apartment – The only other contender for best accommodations has to be the Meriton World Tower, overlooking downtown Sydney.  If you looked in the right spot, you could see the Opera House lit up at night.  A plush, 3 bedroom suite with a breakfast nook surrounded by glass on three sides, it provided a night-time city view like nothing I’ve ever experienced.  Thanks, Jerry and Sally.

The view from our couch in Sydney

Mo Rooms, Chiang Mai, ThailandThis one we paid for.  The bed’s in a basket.  The fridge is hidden in a rock.  The awesomeness is everywhere.

Top Chef

I’m turning it over to Anna to write about her top food experiences of the year.

Learning to cook Indian food in a private home, with a teacher who not only covered 10 dishes, but also could rattle off recipes for anything else anyone had eaten in India. It might have lacked the individual workstations and bustling assistants of the other cooking classes I’ve taken, but it more than made up for that in the detailed insight into actual Indian cooking. Plus, our teacher’s life story was fascinating.

An even more fascinating insight into what people actually eat comes from visiting the local food markets. I can say with confidence that Asians eat a lot more live fish and meat (most markets feature buckets of live fish, cages of live chickens, and tubs of living snakes). There
are at least twice as many kinds of fruit in the world as I had ever heard of before I left. Plus some really crazy looking vegetables.

Dried bats for sale in China

On Top Chef, the contestants often venture out to famous restaurants, or when in a foreign location, to try local preparations. Some of the highlights for us have to be visiting the “soup lady” from Anthony Bourdain’s show, trying zebra pate and wildebeest steak in South Africa,
and the amazing curries in India (still my favorite food location of the whole trip).

Back to Tommy….

Pimp my Ride

We’ve experienced almost every mode of transport imaginable on this trip.  The most memorable have to be:

Ostrich, Ooudstshorn, South Africa – I’ve put on about 15 lbs since we were in South Africa, so there’s no way I’d be allowed to even sit on the ostrich today.  But it always brings me pleasure to link to Anna’s ostrich ride.

Elephant, Luang Prabang, Laos – My day as an elephant mahout ranks as one of the best of the past year.  It’s not particularly comfortable or speedy, but it is memorable.

Bus with Goats, Annapurna circuit, Nepal – There were lots of events to choose from for a third spot here.  Buses in India routinely pack 50 people on the roof.  That damn cow sitting on our car, putting a very un-pimp dent in the hood.  Maybe the 11 person plane that took us to Taveuni.  But to me, nothing says Nepal like taking a 5 hour bus ride with a goat resting it’s head on my leg (and peeing all over my shoes).

No subsitute for Anna

Deal or No Deal

I already considered myself quite proficient at bargaining before we left.  But I’ve been practicing for a solid year now.  Sally, set up a garage sale for January!  Here are some tips we’ve learned along the way.

Always take the moving taxi – For whatever reason, this is one strategy that has held true in every country.  If a taxi is just sitting parked somewhere, the driver will absolutely try to screw you if possible.  His meter is broken.  He charges an extra baggage fee.  Fuel is so expensive, no one will go there on the meter, it’s too far.  Trust us – just flag down a taxi that’s already moving, whether it’s letting people out or just heading to another fare.  Hop in the back, tell them where you want to go and you’re off with no haggling, no bull about a broken meter or fuel charges.  No one will try to rip you off like a taxi driver lazy enough to sit in a parking lot and wait for the tourist buses to arrive.

On buying a carpet – Other than the advice in the post about buying carpets, I’d say that buying a rug in India is a good idea.  I’ve stopped in nearly every rug shop we’ve seen (to Anna’s never-ending annoyance) all over the world and India has the best combination of prices and quality.

Thoughts on haggling in general – Taxi drivers with no meter are always willing to haggle.  In India, the “real price” is routinely 15-20% of the intial price they quote you.  In Russia, just be quiet when they tell you the price – they’ll haggle themselves down to something reasonable if you just stand there quietly, pondering their multitude of offers.  In Nepal, you will never pay “local price” if you’re a tourist.  It’s ok, because even the tourist price is crazy cheap – just know that what you are paying 50 cents for would sell to a local for 5 cents.  And it would sell in America for 5 dollars.  Don’t haggle with Israelis – they’re better at it than you.

I stood there, quietly admiring this awesome set of Longhorn nesting dolls while the shop owner bargarined himself down from $40 to $8. I still didn't buy it (which I regret now). And yes, this was an excuse to link to this picture again.

The Surreal Life

While we’ve had some “Surreal Life” style moments (WMJ!) they aren’t necessarily good blog fodder.  So here are our most surreal moments, instead.

Car surrounded by lions, Kruger National Park, South Africa – Probably the most “Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment of the trip.  Seven lions, one of them his face pressed against the window, looking me in the eye.  I wish we’d had longer to  just sit and enjoy the experience.

India stoplight with camel – Another “not in Kansas” moment.  Walking the streets of Jaipur, India (a city with more people than Chicago) and seeing a traffic-filled three lane street.  Stopped at the light on this street: a bus, a truck, several cars, a ton of tuk tuks and motorbikes.  And a camel, pulling a cart.

Surreal street scene

Namibian Sand dunes – Sossusvlei is challenged only by the volcano of Mt. Yasur for the most surreal landscape of the trip.

While we’re comparing our trip to TV shows, I can’t help but feel like this year has been a long episode of Beauty and the Geek.  I can’t imagine spending this much time with anyone I’ve ever met except for Anna.  I thought we spent a ton of time together when we lived and worked together, but then we at least had other friends and our own lives, apart from work.  On this trip, she talks sports with me and I discuss world politics with her.  But it works, because she’s great.

Thanks for faithfully reading and commenting on the blog for the past year.  Getting the comments from friends and family at home have helped us feel connected, even halfway across the globe.

That's us

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Responses

  1. You both have had an amazing year. I’m glad that y’all had this opportunity to grow, explore, experience, and make memories neither of you will ever forget. However, this mom is so ready to have you both to come home! I’m counting the days! A year is a really long time for this mother 🙂

  2. Awesome experiences and awesome post. What memories. And your comments about Anna at the end make me really happy for you and her.

  3. Damn. I really wish I had been friends with Johnson and Anita last Thanksgiving.

    By the way, thanks for ‘introducing’ me to two of my best friends in Jozi. Safe travels.

  4. This reminds me how proud I am of you two for this adventure. I am so happy you will never live an ordinary life. Even before this trip that was assured but now it is a certainity. You could live in Suburbatory (a new TV show this season) for the rest of your lives and your life would still have all these memories. But of course you won’t.

    This is my favorite blog post among many outstanding ones. Thanks for letting us be a part of it, as a short time participant and as a reader.

  5. It has been an adventure just to read your descriptive, interesting, and informative blogs…ALWAYS exceptional!. Thank goodness for Skype, too! It was such a treat to get to hear your voice and see your sweet faces.
    I think you left out one of the most moving blogs, and one of my favorites…when Tommy & the taxi driver carried the cripple man to the birth place of Christ.
    You both are blessed in so many ways; mostly because you understand and appreciate the abundant bounty you share. Take good care of each other. Stay safe and hurry home…we ALL miss you! XOXOOX, Kita

  6. I have really enjoyed reading your blog over the past year. When you first started out I had just had a baby and I would enjoy reading your posts during those late night feedings. Now my David is 13 months old and we still read them together. You are both great observers and writers and I really love how you react to the situations you find yourselves in. Thank you for sharing the highs and lows of your great adventure.
    I know your family and friends will be happy to have you return home, but I will miss reading about your adventures!
    Thanks again!


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