I have got the travel bug.
I mean, I have had the travel bug for a long, long time, but it is starting to itch. Just a tad. Ok, more than a little. A LOT! I want a real, honest-to-goodness, vacation.
It is most likely a combination of waiting nine weeks after our arrival in China to take our first mini vacation and then the six-week waiting game for management to approve summer leave ahead of what was expected to be a historically busy visa season. Then after our wonderful but action-packed two week trip back to the US in May, it has been a waiting game again through the long, hot, busy Shanghai summer. At the same time it is because of this blog – going back to re-read my travel stories and journals – that I am also reflecting on past and future travels.
In July 2000 I finished my three years teaching English in Japan and set off on a solo 11 month backpacking trip. I purchased an around the world ticket from Washington, DC to Finland, from where I would make my way overland to Tunisia, where I picked up the ticket again to travel to Egypt, then India, then Southeast Asia, and finally back to the US.
It is not difficult to look back at that epic trip with something akin to a Pavlovian dog response – I am literally salivating as I think back to when I had some major time to really hit the road.
At the time I was planning the trip, I had thought long and hard how to spend the $10,000 I had saved from teaching in Japan. I had come to the conclusion that banks would loan me money for graduate school but no one was going to loan me money to backpack around the world. I could spend my hard earned savings seeing the world and still be able to go to graduate school. So I deferred my graduate school for a year, bought the round the world ticket for half the savings, and set about buying travel guides and preparing for the rigors of travel by roaming my little Japanese town with weights in my backpack.
I had no Kindle loaded up with reading material. I had no portable music. I certainly had no cell phone. Internet on the road was still fairly new with Internet cafes popping up in more and more places but in some costing quite the pretty penny (in Venice I recall it costing $25 an hour, which was more than I averaged in total spending per day for everything. I mean lodging, food, sightseeing, and toilet charges. One could not forget to budget for the public toilet).
That is not to say that my trip sans e-books and iPods and smart phones was any better than anyone else’s backpacking trip. Lord knows that those who hit the road 10 or 20 or more years before me had done with less than I had. Fewer guidebooks, fewer made-just-for-the-backpacker-bags, fewer hostels, fewer goodies from home in unexpected places. I read a post online the other day where someone outright dismissed the write-up of a young man just returned from his seven month backpacking journey. Geez, people, everyone deserves to travel the way they want and their journey is no less valid than yours. If they want to do it on an eight day, five country bus tour, then so be it. Just be glad that someone is out there seeing the world, stepping out of their comfort zone (and yes, a crazy guided bus tour with 20 other couples CAN be out of one’s comfort zone) and experiencing another country and culture.
[Stepping off soap box now]
Instead of an e-reader I lugged around five actual books in my pack and when possible I traded it for another book after I finished. It was in this way that I got a hold of my first Harry Potter book, from a British girl in a hostel in the Czech Republic. I also took the one and only English book from the hostel in Vilnius (a ridiculous romance novel that made a Harlequin seem like Shakespeare. However, the loss of a book, such as when I left behind a half finished book in my Tunis hotel, was felt keenly. (I still wonder how that book ended). I also carried around four blank journals, which I slowly filled over the course of my trip.
So I read and I wrote in my journal. I wrote a lot of postcards (do people still do that anymore?). I rode a lot of trains and buses and I looked out of a lot of train and bus windows at the scenery. I took a lot of lovely naps on long trips. I met a lot of people and saw some incredible places. I got sick. I got angry. I got tired. But mostly I was amazed. When I started I had no idea how long I would go. I thought perhaps five, maybe six months. I planned only in general. Itineraries changed. Destinations changed. I never made a hotel reservation. Sure, I still had limitations, but I was also quite incredibly free.
From my few emails along the way (saved by my aunt) and my journals, I have attempted to re-trace and share some of my journey. It has been fun and enlightening, and sometimes even cringe-worthy, to go through my journal entries. I find it odd what topics found their way into the journals and other things I still remember but neglected to write about.
My family and friends do not really know the story of this journey, only bits and pieces. It was an incredible journey that I would never ever give back. It shaped me. I learned my weaknesses and my strengths. It taught me what I could do on my own and further fueled my zest for travel.
I am not sure I will ever have another trip like this. First of all, it is a pain in the rear to explain to every security clearance investigator about this “gap” in my work and education timeline. The first investigator just could not grasp the concept at all. When I tried to explain that I did not recall the places where I stayed as I just turned up and found a place and moved on a day or two or three later. He told me he was going to write I was “in the woods” for five months in Europe, which I explained did not think would be helpful in my bid for a government job.
Second, I will also not again be my twenty-something self, with graduate school and an unknown career ahead of me. I will not be the person I was before I had my daughter. I do not want to be. Yet I am grateful now to be revisiting this part of me. I have absolutely never regretted spending my savings on this trip and borrowing for graduate school. I am fairly sure I would have been told it was a bad idea. Good thing I never asked anyone.