San Francisco, California
My trip is over. I repeat the words again and again: “My trip is over.” But the simple fact refuses to sink in. It just floats in my head, as light and capricious as a soap bubble, suspended indefinitely by a current of conflicting emotions. I am happy to be back and I am depressed. I am excited to stay in one place and I want to leave again tomorrow. The world seems both bigger and smaller. All of my attempts to cling to a specific thought or feeling are eventually thwarted by a grudging realization that the exact opposite may be equally as true.
And yet I am undeniably back in San Francisco. I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge. I ate a burrito at El Buen Sabor. I played pool at Bloodhound with Phil, Neil, Lawrence and Marie. And I almost threw a temper tantrum when I realized how ugly and expensive the Bay Area rental market has become. I am back. My trip is over.
“What was the highlight?” people ask. The question is impossible to answer, so I blurt out whatever pops into my head. Reconnecting with my Hmong friends in Sapa. The Masai Mara and the Lolomarik Farm in Kenya. Exploring the Atacama Desert with Marie. The ceremony of the four Buddhas on Inle Lake in Burma. Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Seeing a wild tiger in India. Meeting my parents in Buenos Aires. Swimming with sea lions in the Galapagos. Trekking in Nepal. Watching monks collect morning alms in Luang Prabang. Coming face-to-face with wild mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia. Flying in a private plane over Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Everything about Southeast Asia.
Those highlights, for some reason, spontaneously appear in my thoughts less often than random, seemingly trivial memories. Pouring unlabeled hot sauce on a bowl of noodle soup at a tiny restaurant in Yangon. Sitting down at a long wooden table in the lobby of a hostel in Kampala as a cheesy hip-hop song began blasting from surprisingly loud speakers. Weaving through crowds of colorfully-dressed indigenous women on the crumbling and chaotic streets of La Paz. The small moments mean as much to me as the highlights.
“How have you been able to digest it all?” asked Larry, my cabin mate in the Galapagos. His wise question deserved a simple answer: I haven’t. Stopping regularly to work on photos and blog entries helped, but it was impossible to fully appreciate and process such an incredible variety of people and places. Certainly not at the time, and maybe never. Paul Theroux, one of my favorite travel writers, has said, “It’s only in retrospect that you begin to understand the travel experience,” and there’s a huge amount of truth in that short statement.
Theroux is also responsible for a startlingly accurate description of the sensation of ‘otherness’ that can only be found in international travel: “Often on a trip I seem to be alive in a hallucinatory vision of difference, the highly colored unreality of foreignness, where I am vividly aware (as in most dreams) that I don’t belong; yet I am floating, an idle anonymous visitor among busy people, an utter stranger.” For me that feeling had once been a rare, cherished high, but a full year of traveling through developing countries brought it upon me so frequently that towards the end I began to worry I might develop immunity.
Looking back on my trip, there’s very little I would have changed. I loved all the different places I visited, and for the most part I felt good about the way I experienced them. I do wish that when I was in western Uganda I’d crossed over to the Congo to see Mount Nyiragongo’s lava-filled crater. I wish I’d made more progress on my Spanish, which is still pathetic. I wish I hadn’t fallen for a scam on the Peru-Ecuador border. I wish I’d arranged my India visa further in advance. And I wish I was the type of person who would have enjoyed being more social and could have done a better job striking up conversations with strangers.
Conventional wisdom says you’re never the same after taking a long overseas trip, and I know I’m different now than I was before. But I don’t feel any wiser or smarter, any more patient or tolerant. I didn’t experience any dramatic revelations. I never even learned how to properly use chopsticks. What changed most was the strength of my connection to the wider world. Now when I hear that a bomb exploded in Nairobi, or that Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, or that a boat sunk on Halong Bay, it affects me much more than it would have before I traveled to Kenya, Burma, and Vietnam. The places I visited have become far more real to me, and consequently I care more about them.
Fifteen months of traveling didn’t do much to help me answer life’s Big Questions. My suspicion continues to be that the ultimate answer is that there is no answer, and that buried within this paradox is a deep understanding that can’t be captured with words or passed directly from one person to another. We each have to uncover it ourselves. And traveling, for some of us, is one of the most rewarding ways to sift through our absurd, sublime existence for clues that we’re digging in the right place.
The trip was unquestionably one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life, and more than anything I feel grateful. Grateful to my parents for raising me in a way that encouraged independence and curiosity. Grateful to Marie, Zannah and my parents for making the trip immeasurably more meaningful by meeting me overseas. And grateful that I was born in a time and place where a regular middle-class guy can fairly easily take a year-long trip all the way around the world.
I fully appreciate how extraordinary it is that I had the opportunity to take this trip. It’s not something that would have been feasible for the vast majority of the current world population. Just 50 years ago it would have been tremendously difficult for anyone. Five hundred years ago it would have been virtually impossible. And who knows what the future holds? There’s no guarantee the window will stay open. If you’ve ever considered taking a similar trip, now is the time.