Mr. Toutmerde is finally heading home

17
Apr
2015

After 3 weeks of hard work and some play, Mr. Toutmerde and I are heading home. The past few weeks have been very intensive and productive work-wise, but I was very interested in the work I was doing, so that is always a plus. And it was great to see Olaf and the gang in Hamburg, I have been here enough times over the past few years that it feels a bit like a second home. I am currently at the Hamburg airport awaiting my flight to Oslo, where I will have about a 3 hour layover before flying on to NYC. I supposed it is a good thing I will have that layover time, because the airline I am flying with (Norwegian) refused to check my bags through to New York, even though both my flights (from Hamburg and Oslo) are with them. This is apparently due to the fact that I bought these two tickets separately, but this still seems ridiculous to me. So once in Oslo, I will have to get my bags, then check them in again. Whatever, I will be happy to be back home, it has been non stop travel since October.

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Homecoming

16
Feb
2015

It has been a nice run, hasn’t it? At 4.5 months, this has been the second longest trip of my life (the first being the 2+ years’ travel adventure that started this blog back in 2006). This trip was never destined to be the mid-life crisis shakeup that earlier trip turned out to be. This trip was about taking an opportunity that presented itself, rather than letting it slip by. That said, it is impossible (I hope, anyway) to travel so much without it changing you, without it leaving a mark. The whole reason for travel is to be exposed to new cultures, new climates, new experiences, new ways of thinking, and of course new foods. To learn from what is beyond the border of your experience, and then integrate those lessons into your world view. Travel pushes you to live in the present moment like no other experience I know, because you can’t rely on routine and habit to navigate it, you need to really pay attention.

The past months have taken me to a wonderfully diverse set of places away from my home in New York. Colombia, California, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, India, Turkey, and finally Portugal. I have seen amazing places, met wonderful people, tasted amazing food. I have figured out logistics in a variety of foreign places and languages, some very easy and some maddening difficult. I have spent time with friends old and new. And although I knew this trip would make my finances take a hit, it was totally worth it. Some people might feel exhausted after such a long journey, but I feel invigorated. While I am definitely looking forward to getting home, it is less about a particular place and set of familiar things than it is about the people I know and love there, people I have missed.

I was expecting to miss most of the winter in New York, and I suppose I have, but it is bone-chillingly cold there at the moment and I guess I will still have about a month or so of winter to experience. Just as well, I will be snug in my apartment, chipping away at the large amount of work I have let pile up over the past few months.  I am currently at the Lisbon airport, awaiting my flight to New York. See you all on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Change of plans

16
Jan
2015

This round-the-world trip has been pretty spectacular so far. But I have decided for a number of reasons to cut it short by about 15 days and take a different route back to New York. In the first place, I have some work piling up that is a little difficult to do properly from the road (although I have been working some). Second, I have exceeded my budget by a bit and need to cut back. And third, after spending close to 4 months on the road already, I am a just a little bit homesick for NYC.

So my new plan is to stay in India a little bit longer, and to return for a week to Mumbai where I will do some work, then to fly on to Istanbul and spend time with some dear friends who live there. After that, I will go to Portugal (where I have never been before), before finally returning to NYC on the 15th or so of February.

But before I get to Mumbai, Ken and I will travel tomorrow to Agra to see (what else) the Taj Mahal, and the following day we will be in Delhi. Ken will fly back to the US the day after, while I will stay on for a few days visiting friends and catching up.

UPDATE: In yet another change of plans, Ken and I realized that by the time we reached Agra tomorrow by train, the Taj would only be open for about another hour. Our original plan was to see the Taj by night, but it is only open on near or full moon nights, which leaves us out alas. So we are heading straight to Delhi instead, a 4 hour trip vs the almost 10 hour trip to Agra.

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Reeling and Retching in Rishikesh

14
Jan
2015

Before Ken came to India, I tried to warn him that it was an intense place. I told him if one has never been to India, one should try to spend at least a month, and know that the first week or two will be spent on adjusting and getting over the westerner’s freakout that almost always happens when one first arrives. I remember well how disorienting everything was to me when I first came to India. The chaos, the crush of people, the smells, the poverty, the built environment — all of it an assault on the senses. Add to that the traffic, the dirt, the shit, and the noise. I think it is almost impossible to enjoy India and all it has to offer if one has only been here for a week or two. And I have never met a single person in my life who came to India for less than a month and enjoyed it. The only people who might possibly think just a week or two is ok are traveling in 5-star luxury, and have not really seen India at all, only some glossy, gauzy, carefully edited fantasy cooked up by greedy travel agents.

Our day started out well enough. We woke up, got packed and went downstairs to check out, which went smoothly. The hotel had helpfully arranged transport for us to the train station in the form of an auto rickshaw (known in other places as a tuk tuk), which was good since it was raining. Ken had never been in one of these, so I thought great, a new experience, but they can be a bit wobbly, especially on the uneven streets of an Indian town. We made it to the train station after about 20 minutes, and then went to find our train, which we did with the help of a nice local man. Since we had some time to spare, we walked to the station restaurant and ordered some breakfast and sat down, when suddenly the power went out. We sat in pitch darkness until they brought out a battery powered lantern, and they apologized that our coffees would be a bit delayed. Ken took a look outside on the platform, with all the sleeping people and others hanging about, and told me it looked kinda creepy out there. The lights came back on and we finished our meal and got on our train, which departed the station at 7:13 am, a very reasonable delay of only 18 minutes.

In India I book first class on trains whenever possible, because it is quite inexpensive and while not as nice as second class in most places, is certainly the best thing on offer. Alas, the train to Haridwar has no first class available, so I booked something called AC Chair Class. Our seats were pretty uncomfortable and I had to stand for part of the trip because my ass and back were so sore. Ken said much the same and seemed to be dealing with it well, but I think the 7 hours in that position must have worn him down a bit. When we finally made it to Haridwar, we were both pretty hungry, so decided the first thing we would do would be to search for food. As we descended the train, we were naturally assaulted by a variety of touts, most of whom were looking to taxi us up to Rishikesh. I have a lot of experience with this and so just ignored them or politely said no thanks as I calmly made my way with my bags to the exit and out to find a restaurant. But Ken became a bit agitated and then I think had a bit of a panic attack, because he started wandering off without me and seemed really out of it. I found him and we made our way to a restaurant and got a bite to eat, and he seemed a little bit better after that. But then we went out and I negotiated a taxi for us to Rishikesh, doing the back and forth that one does when trying to pay the correct amount to go somewhere. We actually ended up paying a little more than we should have, but I wanted to get to the ashram we were going to sooner rather than later so I tried to wrap it up. We got in the taxi and started to make our way through the chaotic traffic, past people and a wild boar, and some monkeys, stray dogs and cows of course, and all manner of cart being pulled by people or animals, and blaring horns and near head-on collisions, and drivers all trying to pass each other, and swerving and potholes and bumps and diesel fumes all around — you know, a normal drive in an Indian town.

By this time Ken was really looking queasy, holding his head in his hands, and at one point told us to stop the car, at which point he got out and threw up. He then got back in and was shaking a bit and telling me he felt terrible and sleepy and light-headed and just wanted some peace and quiet. Knowing we were about to head to an ashram that might provide still more strangeness, I told Ken that we could just go to a hotel instead. That seemed to cheer him a bit and so we picked one of the ones he had seen in his guidebook and decided to go there. The driver we had made a deal with had taken a slightly easier route (for him) to the ashram, letting us off across the river (Ganges btw) from the ashram, about a 10-minute walk across a footbridge and down a street. Fortunately, the hotel Ken had picked was quite close on the map to the ashram, so we thought it would be just as easy to get to. It was anything but.

Once we got out of the taxi, it immediately started to rain of course, and we made our way with our bags down a perilous and slippery staircase to get to the footbridge to cross the river. Once across, we had to follow quite a winding path that google gave us to get to the hotel. And this path was uphill part of the way, and not very suitable for rolling bags as it was only paved in places and even along those I have almost never seen as much wet dung to avoid as I did today. Along the way, Ken saw a guy selling oranges and decided he needed to buy some, so he did, and on we continued. As we got closer to the suburb where the hotel was, we noticed even more cattle and mangy stray dogs in the road and several monkeys. Apparently Ken’s clear plastic sack of oranges really got the monkeys’ attention, and they started following him trying to grab them. He ultimately stopped to put them in his sack, and we finally made it to our hotel, which is brand spanking new and clean and nice. I think this place saved Ken’s sanity today, and he is sleeping now and will hopefully be feeling better in a few hours.

I think the combination of jet-lag and unfamiliarity and non-stop activity made Ken feel sick, freak out, and shut down a bit. I got a little bit worried about him today in fact, but hopefully this rest in luxury (we are paying THIRTY dollars for this hotel) will help him relax and replenish himself so that we can explore Rishikesh tomorrow.

I hope it is not terrible to say, but this experience with Ken has made me feel a bit better about my own coping skills. I think I had a few concerns on returning to India, but it has been a bit like riding a bike. I certainly can note the differences with the US in terms of the way things work, but I have not grown so distant from my experience here all those years ago to find it overwhelming. I am actually really enjoying seeing the new places and reliving some of the old chaos, in addition to meeting up with old friends I had made here. I still find India to be an incredible place with so much to offer. I hope that the shortness of this trip will not turn my dear friend Ken off from a place that can be so magical when viewed from a certain perspective.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: As I was finishing this blog post, Ken woke up, ran to the bathroom and heartily puked a few times. Now that I think about it, and after having reviewed what we had eaten today, I believe Ken has a simple case of food poisoning. This was most likely caused by the Biryani he ate this morning at the station restaurant, since it is the only thing he ate today that I did not. These things usually last about 24 hours, so he will hopefully be right as rain tomorrow. And ready to bask in the glory of India after all.

A Farewell to Oz

4
Jan
2015

Well, this is it. I am leaving Australia finally, after a 54 day adventure. I am very glad I came to Australia, I have met a lot of nice people and seen a lot of things. But overall, I am leaving with the impression of a place that is more similar to the United States than just about any other country in the world, with the possible exception of Canada. I think the reason a lot of Americans love Australia so much is because it is a “safe” and familiar destination, with not a lot to culturally challenge them. The language is much the same. The food is much the same. The people are much the same, even in their city and suburb and farm varieties. They can tell themselves (because of the distance and the few variables) that they are traveling to a foreign land, and feel self-satisfied at their own sense of adventure, but it is just not a culturally challenging place for us. In very many ways, the country could just be a few extra states tacked on to the US’ 50, and no one would much notice the difference. In fact, I would argue that the differences between, say, New York and New Orleans are far greater than the differences between the Great Plains and Queensland.

There are of course things I did not get to see that I would like to, and perhaps I will come back someday. The Great Barrier Reef of course, and New Zealand, which is just a stone’s throw from here. I made a couple of great friends here and got to know some people I already knew a lot better than I had before. I saw some spectacular landscapes and had some really excellent coffee. I learned some fun slang and saw a variety of ways people live here. I danced and I drank and I ate. And the mere fact of coming here has shrunken the psychological distance (if not the actual distance), making a return that much more possible. Goodbye Oz, and thanks for everything. It was a good trip.

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Shonky trip to Melbourne

18
Nov
2014

This morning I was preparing to head out to the airport to catch my plane to Melbourne. I knew I had plenty of time since this was a domestic flight, but I was still planning to get there with a little more than an hour to spare. I was getting ready in a leisurely way, checking to make sure I had packed everything when I took another look at my itinerary and noted that it said “Terminal 1” on it. So I went to lookup this terminal and found that it was the international terminal, which seemed very odd since I was taking a domestic flight. Then I looked on the Jetstar airline site to find out that some of their domestic flights did indeed leave from the international terminal, and this meant that one had to arrive with the same amount of time one would give to an international flight.

Shit. Suddenly, I was late.

I jammed the rest of my stuff into my bags and bolted out the door, running towards the station. I arrived a sweaty mess at the airport, but in enough time to get my boarding pass (which they would not issue online) and get through security. And speaking of security, it was like 9/11 just happened a few months ago for them. Inconsequential things that I had dragged in my carry on from country to country, and between several continents, were suddenly dangerous tools of terrorism according to the over-eager security screening staff at the Sydney airport. They threw away my beard oil, my tiny beard trimming scissors, and they even threw away my 2/3rds empty tube of toothpaste. I wanted to ask the earnest 14 year old, shiny, barely post pubescent young man who was doing all the rechecking of my luggage if he had perhaps just completed his training and came in first in his class with a gold star in diligence. But instead I just asked him why, when I had taken all these things across so many countries I should be stopped now. He then had the nerve to tell me there was “NO WAY you would have passed security in the United States with this.” When I told him I had indeed done just that he said he did not believe me. I have decided that our power abroad (such as it is) must rest on numerous such assumptions about American thoroughness and toughness.

Fortunately, I was chatting with a very nice young man in line who offered me a free pass with him to the Quantas lounge, so we were able to relax with a coffee and muffin for a bit, have a conversation about travel, and quietly mourn the loss of my grooming supplies. The flight itself was uneventful, but it was kinda cool to ride for the first time in a Dreamliner, the windows in particular are fun to operate. Upon landing, it was unfortunately as if we had come from overseas, and we had to do the whole customs bullshit as we had to on the way out of Sydney. I would say this whole international instead of domestic thingy probably added a good hour to the trip. If you are ever flying Jetstar domestically out of Sydney, do your best to book one of the domestic terminal flights, you will be happier.

Nomad, for now

26
Oct
2014

I am writing this from the airport in San Francisco. In less than two hours, I will be on my way to Japan for the first time. This is where the far-flung part of my trip begins, and no telling exactly when it will end, but at this point I expect sometime mid to late February. I will of course be working along the way, one of the perks of doing what I do. This will allow me to continue earning as I go, and still experience these other places and cultures. I really marvel at how lucky I am that I have chosen a career that allows this kind of flexibility. All I need to be productive is a laptop and an internet connection. With the exception of a face to face meeting or site visit here or there, I never need to be physically co-located with other people. That de-coupling of work from place is the basis for a kind of freedom I never expected to have growing up, when this was not an option. So I am grateful for the time and place in which I was born.

Never fear the wrong choice

25
Oct
2014

Tomorrow I leave for Tokyo. Am I ready? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not that bothered really. When visiting an unfamiliar place, I think it is very difficult to make truly awful choices. That is because when everything is new in a place, all of it is a learning experience. There is no right or wrong thing to see, no right or wrong place to stay, it is all surprising and will teach you something about that place.  The last couple of days I have been firming up some plans for various countries I will visit on this trip. Ken and I have picked out where we will stay in Japan (in Tokyo, Kurashiki, and Kyoto). We have our rail passes but not not the reservations, which should be a fun adventure in and of itself once we get there. I am still figuring out where I will stay and what I will do in Seoul which follows Japan on the 5th. And just yesterday, I settled on an apartment in the South Yarra neighborhood in Melbourne for a 15 day stay at the end of November. Little by little, it all falls into place. I’m getting really excited.

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Never can say goodbye

30
Sep
2014

One part of the mad dash that makes up any period before a long trip or permanent move involves trying to see as many friends as possible before the departure. It is not like I think I will never see them again, but with all the chaos that is happening in the world, and the general unpredictability of life, it is nice to solidify the bonds of friendship. I’m not saying that the next time they see me it will be via YouTube video, me on my knees in an orange jumpsuit with a menacing man all in black behind me. Nor am I  implying that a family member or friend may receive one of my severed fingers by post with a ransom demand. I am definitely not saying that I will fall head over heels in love with some beautiful man in one of the countries I will be visiting and decide to get married and live out my life there. And I am not saying that any of my friends will get hit by a subway car or taken to prison or decide for the success of their sobriety to move to the remotest desert. I am just saying that while we have today, we should tell each other how important we are to each other, and that we love each other, and the road of life has been made nicer for walking it together.

The new adventures of Stephen

7
Sep
2014

Way back in 2006, I began this blog. The purpose at the time was to provide an easy way for friends and family to keep up with my whereabouts and experiences, as I was just about to embark on (what would turn out to be) a 2.5 year travel adventure spanning 4 continents. And since moving to New York 5 years ago, I have continued (though at times infrequently) to keep up the blog, writing about all manner of item in addition to travel. That said, I think everyone would agree that the most interesting writing and insights come while on the road. And I have not exactly been stagnant on the travel front, even while being most definitely rooted in New York and a return to professional (read: paid) life and work. In the past 5 years, I have travelled to Puerto Rico, Spain, France, Germany, England, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Morocco, Switzerland, Canada and several destinations inside the contiguous United States. I have on several occasions been absent more than a month, but have not come close to repeating the sheer scope of my earlier trip, and had no plans to do so until recently.

But then last February, thanks to a friend, I came across an opportunity for a round-the-world airfare that was a staggeringly good deal. I decided that even though this was not in my plans, letting a chance like this pass by would be stupid, so I took it. In case you have never heard of them, RTW fares are something that all the major flight groups offer (you can find their planning websites here, here, and here), and they allow you to get a pretty good deal on these special trips, with certain rules and restrictions. Basically, you have to go (more or less) in one direction around the globe; You have one year to complete all flights; You can usually change times and dates of any particular flight for free but not the routing.

So, coming up on October 1st, I am heading out. In order, I will pass through Columbia, Venezuela, The US (Los Angeles), Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, South Africa, and Brazil before returning to New York. The planning and timing is still a bit in the air (pun intended), but I will take between 3 and 5 months to make the entire trip. Since I am not independently wealthy, I will continue to work while on this trip. One of the great advantages in what I do is that I only need my laptop and a good internet connection to get my work done. I will of course be on a reduced schedule, but I will probably still end up working about half the time I normally would. In some places (Australia), I will try to rent an apartment and stay for a few weeks, in others (South Korea) I will pass through, do a bit of tourism, and continue on my way. And in the few places I already know from previous travels (India, Brazil, Los Angeles), I will mainly visit with old friends and (probably) not see much that is new.

I don’t feel especially prepared for my trip, there is tons of planning to do and I have very little idea where I will go yet in each place. I pulled this start date out of thin air back in February, and it seemed so very far in the future at that time, I thought I would have plenty of time to have it all figured out by now. But then, the road has a way of pointing me in the direction of things I should see and do, and because it is all new there is really no “wrong” way to learn and explore. Still, if any of you have any specific experience in the places I am going, by all means send me your tips!

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