We were thrilled to reach our latest destination. Our Spanish-style accommodations offered a comfy bed, large towels, plenty of hot water and a fireplace. It should have felt familiar. We were home, after all.
Or were we?
The address was the same one my girlfriend, Andrea Boyles, and I left last January when we flew to Fiji to start our trip around the world. But now that we had completed the circle a year later, arriving home mid-month from Chile, the front door of our house opened to another foreign place. The light switches were not where I reached for them. The doorknobs seemed lower. When I left phone messages, I couldn’t recall our home number.
Our pets, cared for the past year by the fellow who rented the house, had swapped personalities. Aretha, the cat, who usually greets our return with a shoulder cold enough to frost a beer mug, was positively giddy. Maya, our shepherd mix, would leap into the lap of a dog catcher, but when we rushed through the gate, crying her name, she yawned and turned her back. We thought of her every day of our journey, often gazing at the photos of her we attached to our luggage tags, and now she didn’t know who we were.
But there were aspects of our return that weren’t so bad. It was divine to shuck the nylon travel pants I wore nearly every day for a year and step into some jeans. I marveled at how cars stopped for me at crosswalks. I enjoyed the heft of a full-size bar of soap, rather than the puny cakes that squirted from my hands in budget hotel showers from Bangkok to Buenos Aires.
After visiting 22 countries in the South Pacific, Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Europe, North Africa and South America, our wander year is over, and we are overwhelmed.
We’re happy to catch up with family and friends, but our return to the U.S. leaves us displaced. We are refugees of a sort, caught between a dream world that was the experience of a lifetime and a real world that we have yet to redefine.
Andrea was 40 and I was 42 when we decided to enjoy today what we might not be around to enjoy tomorrow. We had no children or other obligations to hold us back. We had traveled before but never for as long. With a few exceptions, we chose countries we had not previously visited. That we didn’t get everywhere on our wish list--Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, among other destinations--only means a future itinerary is already taking shape.
There are some years when so much life happens you can’t live it all at the time it occurs, and this was one of them. I’m sure that decades from now, we will flash on profound and poignant moments we’re still to realize from this trip. It will take awhile to grasp the lessons we’ve learned and the changes we’ve experienced. And although we may not know the meaning of it all yet, we can look back on the obvious.
We are lucky, and we know it. For a year, we woke each day with the sole mission of getting dressed and trotting the globe. When we think of 2000, we’ll say: “That’s the year we traveled around the world. We started the millennium in style.”
Postcards are lovely, but there is no substitute for laying your eyes on nature’s wonders in person. I had no idea that parts of the world are so staggeringly beautiful. We did not spot a single blemish in New Zealand, where it’s hard to tell where the pristine national parks end and the rest of the country begins. I’ve wondered what the west coast of North America looked like 100 years ago, and we may have glimpsed it in southern Chile, where neither people nor buildings block your view of virgin forests, crystal streams and fairy-tale mountains.
The contrast between the green oases and the purple mesas of the Dra^a Valley in southwest Morocco are so brilliant that we had to squint behind our shades. In Halong Bay, Vietnam, we sailed among 3,000 lush limestone islands that rise from the emerald water like jade steeples. A ride across the surreal landscape of the Bolivian altiplano delivered us to bubbling mud pots, rainbow colored peaks, gleaming salt flats and pink flamingos. I know there are rivers that flow with toxic waste, skies that are choked with smog and rain forests that fall to bulldozers, but it’s still a pretty planet.
There is more to travel than scenery. We found the whole package in the magical kingdom of Nepal, where the grandeur of the Himalayas is matched by the lofty spirit of the people. “Don’t try to change Nepal; let Nepal change you,” the saying goes, and it did. We were humbled to see life simply lived, inspired by souls who meet the burdens of the day with a smile. “Namaste,” they say in greeting to anyone in their path, which means loosely, “I salute the god within you.”
Travel challenges your assumptions. Information now spreads at the speed of light, but it’s still possible to venture into the world badly misinformed. Listen only to the sound bites that make the news, and it’s easy to picture China as a grim country of 1 billion oppressed, a threat to global stability and a potential enemy. So we were surprised when Darth Vader didn’t meet us at the airport. Sure, China has its problems, but far from miserable, most of the people we saw appeared genuinely content. I had to question my belief in the universal appeal of our economic and political values.
Aside from some of the most striking landscape of the journey, we found in China a hospitable people who had more in common with us than we knew. In the southwestern province of Yunnan, we were the only foreigners on a modern Mercedes bus that showed a subtitled video of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” while driving a new freeway between Lijiang and Kunming. When we stopped at a roadside cafe, we shared pork, fish, eggplant and rice from a revolving tray with eight other passengers. No one spoke to us, so I assumed there was a language barrier or that they resented us.
When I dumped some red sauce on my food, a young woman said in English, “That’s spicy.” I laughed and wondered how often I’d mistaken shyness for indifference. The others smiled and started chatting with us in English. They were business professionals on vacation. When they learned we were Americans, they were eager to hear what we thought of their country. They asked where we had been and suggested other stops. They were proud of China and wanted us to have a good time. Our governments may disagree, but these people did not feel like my enemy.
Besides revealing the fundamental similarities of people around the world, travel can expose us to our fascinating differences. I struggled as a tourist in India, but these many months later, I recall it as the most compelling country of our journey.
In the sacred city of Varanasi, we hired a boatman to row us on the Ganges at sunrise. Hindus, who believe in reincarnation, hold that dying in Varanasi and having one’s ashes scattered on the holy river guarantees the soul release from the cycle of rebirth. When our boat pulled in front of the burning ghat--the riverside steps where the dead were being cremated in open fires--I was at once repulsed and riveted. The boatman inexplicably rowed ashore, where eight shrouded bodies burned simultaneously on separate heaps of wood. Workers held scarves to their mouths and tended the pyres with sticks while others carried baskets of ashes atop their heads to the holy river. The flames warmed our faces, and the sweet smell of sandalwood powder sprinkled on the bodies filled our nostrils. A stack of bamboo poles yanked from the stretchers used to carry the dead sat near the water. The boatman picked through them, searching for the makings of a new oar. As male relatives of the deceased circled the bodies in a ritual, I never felt as conspicuous in my life.
But I suddenly saw that nobody noticed us, and the funerals went on amid a hubbub of activity. Children leaped into the water from steps next to boats laden with wood for the pyres. Women in saris and men in loincloths bathed in the river, while others brushed their teeth or washed clothes. Pilgrims prayed and meditated. Cows munched on the dry grass used to kindle the fires. When a cricket ball rolled down the steps of the burning ghat, a boy did not hesitate to retrieve it. A scene that had looked bizarre now appeared natural. Life and death blended on the river in harmony. As we floated away, I realized that it may be a crowded planet, but there’s ample room for a multitude of lifestyles and beliefs.
You can learn a lot about your country by leaving it. I used to think most criticism of America sprang from jealousy, but now I believe it’s born of bafflement. Many around the world see us as work-obsessed and materialistic. Like all generalizations, it’s an exaggeration. But it was bliss to go a year without hearing the phrase “dot-com” or looking at people who appear to have grown cell phones from their heads.
We were constantly reminded of our impact as tourists. You can follow the adage to “take only photos, leave only footprints,” yet still leave giant footprints. Banana pancakes and Bob Marley tunes, staples of the backpacker diet, are served worldwide, often to the exclusion of local fare. In Bali, Indonesia, young men have abandoned the family rice fields to drive taxis; now traffic and congestion strangle an island fewer are calling paradise. Coca-Cola is sold outside the ancient temples of Angkor, Cambodia, and seemingly everywhere else in the world. Some women of the Andes have learned they can make more money posing for snapshots with a llama than by weaving the animal’s wool. I don’t know the answer, but I’m troubled that my application for a passport can unleash a chain of unintended consequences.
We made some mistakes. One I made repeatedly was my habit of regarding strangers with suspicion. Reeling from the relentless sales pitches in India, I waved off most anyone who approached me the rest of the trip. I avoided hassles, but no telling how many interesting conversations I denied myself. Most touts, hawkers and wannabe guides are harmless. Besides, people after your money can be the most entertaining of all.
One of the things we did right was to pace ourselves. After some tough miles in Southeast Asia, we flew from Malaysia to Scotland and rested in one of our favorite places in a rented flat. Spanish school in Avila, Spain, let us linger in one picturesque spot for two weeks. And visits by friends and relatives in New Zealand, Ireland, Spain and Chile revived our spirits along the way.
Andrea and I relied on each other a lot. People are amazed we traveled together for a year, virtually 24 hours a day, without a fight. The strain of prolonged travel tests a relationship, and we earned an A. It was easy.
We might have met more people had we roamed alone, but traveling as a couple let us do things we might not otherwise have tried. I never would have attended the symphony in Hanoi, the ballet in Madrid and a jazz concert in La Paz, Bolivia, without Andrea’s prodding. Andrea would have skipped the British Open golf championship had I not been along. And together we discovered our new passion of trekking. We learned why New Zealand’s Milford Track, with its towering waterfalls and glacially carved valleys, is called “the finest walk in the world.” The 104-mile Cotswold Way afforded glorious views of the western English countryside. If there is a postcard of heaven, it might resemble the trail-side vista in Chomrong, Nepal, of the mystical peaks Annapurna South, Machhapuchhare and Hiunchuli.
It’s a young world. It was refreshing to watch children amuse themselves without expensive high-tech toys and video games. My heart soared when Indonesian kids shouted with joy as their kites made of plastic trash bags danced on the wind. In Patan, Nepal, boys excitedly played table tennis on a crumbling slab of cement, using a line of bricks for the net.
It’s an unfair world. We can’t choose our parents. Where we’re born is a cosmic crapshoot. Americans, even the poorest among us, are born with advantages most others will never know. Don’t leave these shores if you can’t face how good you’ve got it. You’ll find almost unimaginable poverty and suffering, endured by people who never had a choice. Every day I was forced to admit, there but for sheer, dumb luck go I.
Despite its cruelties and atrocities, it can be a benevolent world. We encountered a level of civility and respect Americans rarely extend to one another. Nothing bad happened. We weren’t assaulted or pickpocketed. Nothing was ever taken from our rooms. We’ve returned without a scratch, let alone a single hurt feeling.
Our modest goal when we left was to take a break. That now sounds naive. A break implies that you will resume a routine. While I continued work as a writer, Andrea quit a good job in the health insurance industry. The immediate future is uncertain. Even if we had routines to step back into, this enriching year would have altered our view of them. For us, a new journey begins in an unfamiliar place called home.
A few days after we got back, Maya, our dog, seemed to remember us. Or maybe she just likes the new people who have moved into her house. I continued to feel unsettled. After the simplicity of living out of a 15-pound backpack in hotels for a year, there were now too many choices: too many shirts, too many shoes, too many rooms to enter. I found myself pacing. I kept stopping in front of the globe we had left a year ago on the kitchen counter. That’s how our wander year started. A couple of spins and a dream. The globe spoke, and we listened. A year later, I’ve returned to end the conversation:
Thank you, World.
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The Wander Year y the Numbers
Countries visited: 22
Times across the equator: 6
Beds slept in: 169
(plus one sand dune)
Total cost of trip: $51,470
Food and beverage: $9,285
Tours, excursions: $3,283
Gifts, souvenirs: $2,243
Shipping gifts and souvenirs home: $516
Bowling (China): $9
Highs and lows
Most expensive hotel: $149, Hosteria Las Torres, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Least expensive hotel: $1, Purnima Guest House, Shika, Nepal