1. Favorite Memories
2. Places to Return To
4. Most Important Items
5. Best Shopping Spots
But before I begin, let me make a quick list of The reasons I love New York:
1. Hot weather (and cold weather, and everything in between)
2. Seeing old friends from Athens, Boston and even San Francisco
4. Biking. It's flat and there are tons of bike lanes
5. $1 slices of pizza and delicious bagels all over the place
6. Swimming in the ocean
Okay, and one more quick one before we get started. Why New York feels like home:
1. Eastern Standard Time
4. Dunkin Donuts
Okay, so getting back to the trip ... I compiled a list of my favorite memories, in chronological order. I think part of the reason this post has taken so long to write is because I keep going back and adding onto this list. I had to stop myself eventually, but it was hard. Maybe there will be part two at a later date...
1. Getting to the top of Dead Woman's Pass on the Inka Trail (13,860 feet). This was one of my most challenging moments. On top of the altitude sickness, which induced shortness of breath, dizziness and nausea, I also had a horrible stomach ache because I ate way too much at the rest stop before the climb. If you ever hike the Inka Trail, I advise you to take an altitude sickness pill on the second day. I also advise you never to chow down on an enormous amount of food (no matter how hungry you may be) before doing a big climb. I thought I was going to die. I couldn't take more than three steps before suffocating, and I was so light-headed and dizzy that I thought I was going to stumble off the side of the cliff. Needless to say, getting to the top of this pass was one of my favorite moments. I was so struggling that when I got to the top, I burst into tears, but somehow managed to pull myself together for this group photo.
2. The bus ride from Cusco to Puno, Peru. We sat on the top level of a double-decker bus in the very front row. Once in a while, a dog or a little kid would run in front of the bus and I would scream, but we never hit anything (that I know of).
3. Watching the sun set over Lake Titicaca from our room in Copacabana, Bolivia. We stayed at a place called Las Olas, which might be my favorite lodging of the entire trip.
4. Biking to the start of Death Road (not the actual Death Road itself). The road that leads to the infamous Bolivian Death Road is a peaceful and majestic ride downhill. It's only when you start going down the narrow, rocky, cliff-hugging "road" that you have near-death experiences.
5. Punta Arenas cemetery. Monica and I had so much fun exploring this cemetery, mostly because of the Dr. Seuss gumdrop trees. It did feel a little weird to be having that much fun in a cemetery, but hey--at least we brought some life into it.
6. Getting rescued from the forest fire in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. While on a four-day trek through this park, Monica and I were evacuated (twice) due to a tragic fire that started when a hiker burned his used toilet paper. To exit the park, we needed to get past the fire, which was impossible. After many hours on edge, we made it onto a boat that took us around. The park didn't have any rescue boats of its own, so instead we hopped aboard the Grey Glacier tourist boat. We went from a state of panic and fear to euphoria, drinking pisco sours with glacier ice. I uploaded two videos I shot at the time of the rescue: here and here.
7. Spending New Year's Eve with a wonderful motley group of people from around the world at a hostel in Puerto Natales, Chile. This hostel was pretty much our last resort. We had just gotten back from hiking in Torres del Paine and we hadn't made a hostel reservation before we left. Everything was full because everyone who got evacuated from the park came back to Puerto Natales, the only town in the area. The hostel was bare-bones, not fancy at all, but what made it special was the people. Upon arrival, we were invited for a steak dinner cooked by the other hostel guests. Everyone was warm, friendly and seemed to just click. There was the German mathematician, the Venezuelan girl and her Italian boyfriend, the (possibly gay) white and black American friends, the Englishman who reminded us all of Harry Potter, the Chilean owner of the house, and me and Monica. This was by far my favorite hostel experience.
8. Peeking over the edge of Iguazu Falls, Argentina. Monica and I took an 18-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires to Iguazu, spent a couple days in the area, and then a 24-hour bus ride from Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro. We could have taken a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Rio instead, but in my opinion, Iguazu Falls was worth the extra 40 hours! Check out this video looking down into Gargantua del Diablo (the Devil's Throat).
9. Music on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. I had been sick in bed the previous three days, and I finally managed to get up on my feet. I was weak and the thought of eating still made me queasy, so while Monica and Bruna got lunch, I walked around and stumbled on a jam session on our last day in Rio. People were happy, crying while listening to their old favorites and joining in, taking over the mic if they were so inspired.
10. Swinging on the biggest swing in the world, on a chocolate and soap factory in Bali.
11. Swimming in the dark pools of a 500-year-old water palace in Bali.
12. Careening around corners through warm fog with our friends Sara and Jesse in Bali. This was ultimate freedom.
13. Overcoming hatred of music at dance party on the roof of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Monica and I went to the roof of this crazy casino/hotel/mall because we heard about a dance party up there. The music was the same lame Top 40's music we couldn't seem to escape from, and as soon as I heard it I wanted out. It was a trashy crowd of drunk, young frat hoes and bros. But instead of leaving, we stuck it out. I lost it on the dance floor. I turned all my negativity into positive energy and ended up having a great night.
14. Riding the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Thailand. This was one of the first times on the trip when we really clicked with some fellow travelers. Sure, we met people here or there who seemed alright, but our two British cabin-mates on the Thai train were exceptional. We talked about art, life in London and San Francisco, our plans for Southeast Asia, hiking, theatre and so on. This was by far the best train experience we had on our trip. The train was clean, there weren't any bugs, we had a good amount of room, we got decent sleep, and we woke up in one of our favorite cities: Chiang Mai.
15. Chilling with a tiger in Thailand. Tiger Kingdom--outside of Chiang Mai--was a very surreal experience. Monica and I knew nothing about this place. We saw a sign for it while we were on a motorbike ride one day. What a fantastic discovery--this photo says it all.
16. Washing elephants in a Thai waterfall. Monica and I went to an elephant rescue sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai and spent a day riding, feeding, bathing and learning about elephants. They are definitely my favorite animal. Such amazing and intelligent creatures...
17. Our four nights at the Ob-oon Guesthouse in Chiang Mai. Are you noticing a theme? Yes, Chiang Mai was incredible for so many reasons. It's one place I look forward to going back to some day. Everything about Ob-oon was perfect. Our room, the beds, the house, the motorbikes, bicycles, the food, the people ... the list goes on and on. A definite highlight of the trip.
18. Swimming in the Kuang Si Falls in Laos. We met a couple guys from Eugene, Oregon while we rode the two-day slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang and ended up hanging out with them for a few days. They are the nicest guys on Earth and probably my favorite people we met on the trip. We rode bikes with them, shopped, ate, walked around, but the best adventure was our tuk-tuk trip to the waterfall. It was ice cold and a crisp aqua color--a very refreshing break from the humid heat of the city. This was another one of those trips that wasn't planned. In fact, we almost didn't go because other travelers didn't make it sound that incredible. Upon arrival, I think we all split off and started taking photos without saying anything to one another. We had no idea it was going to be so gorgeous. And it was huge--we still would have been amazed if it were only one tenth the size.
19. Walking around the pretty streets of Hoi An, Vietnam. There was something magical about Hoi An. It was calm and beautiful and old. It was walkable and shop-able and fun. It lit up at night, had great food, cheap beer and employed lots of fashion designers. It was in this city that Daniel, Monica and I had dresses, skirts, shirts, suits and shoes made.
20. Bumping around on the tuk-tuk ride to Kompong Phluk Floating Village outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. The floating village was incredible, but better was the tuk-tuk ride to get there. Daniel and I rolled through tiny village after village, awing at their beautifully simple bamboo houses and waving to children as they walked to and from school dressed in their adorable uniforms. All of this while bumping around in the back of a tuk-tuk on an empty, dusty road with a smiling driver looking back every few minutes to make sure we were still on board.
21. Crashing a wedding in Banaue, Philippines. Banaue was the first place that made us start falling in love with the Philippines. It's a small village with one bar: the Friends Country Music bar. For some reason, people in this village LOVE American country music, and they love covering country songs. That bar was great, but I should be writing about the wedding we crashed. Basically, the whole village is invited to attend weddings in this area so that everyone knows who is "taken" and who is still "available." It's a huge community event with music, dancing and lots of free food. We technically didn't crash the wedding--we were invited to attend by multiple people. Everyone was so warm and welcoming. I think there might have been a couple other non-Filipinos there, but Monica and I were the only ones who actually got in the ridiculous food lines. They were happy to share with us. We ate with our hands (gross and delicious at the same time). Then we rinsed them off with the hose near the basketball hoop. Lots of fun.
22. Hiking to the waterfall in Batad, Philippines. Batad is a tiny picturesque village where all you can do is hang out, eat and hike through rice terraces to a waterfall. So that's what we did. It was one of the toughest hikes on the trip. I'm not sure how much elevation we climbed, but it was worth it. The waterfall was breathtaking.
23. Riding on top of Jeepneys all over the mountains in Luzon, Philippines, listening to music. One of the best things I've ever done in my life.
24. Exploring the beautiful and homey landscape of Sagada, Philippines. Sagada reminded me of my hometown: Athens, Georgia. I loved being there and deciding to pretty much do nothing--none of the touristy cave exploration trips, or hiking or rafting or rock climbing. Monica and I just went on walks around town.
25. Motorbiking around the tiny island of Bohol, Philippines. We spent a week on this island--more specifically on a strip of land called Alona Beach. That week felt like a lifetime since previously we'd been hopping around so much. We met a nice guy named Jake from Korea who was living on the island for a few months learning how to instruct SCUBA diving lessons. One day he took us on a ride around the island. Highlights include butterflies, tarsiers and chocolate hills.
26. Spending an entire week in one place, at Alona Beach, Philippines. It was calm and adventurous at the same time. We have a story that can only be told in person.
27. Riding on the upper level of the double-decker trams in Hong Kong. I love the public transportation in this city! It's so unique and different and fun. Cool old red-and-white cabs, ferries, street escalators, double-decker trams and buses. A ride across the entire city on a tram costs about a quarter and is one of the most enjoyable things to do here.
28. Eating the most delicious Indian food of my life at the Andhra Pradesh Bhawan Canteen in Delhi. This local place was our driver's recommendation. It is an all-you-can-eat vegetarian meal that costs less than $2. Unbelievably tasty. Monica and Jenny enjoyed it, but not quite as much as I did. I just remember saying "Oh my God--it's all so good!" over and over again throughout the entire meal.
29. Riding camels in the Indian desert. Everything about this camel safari was perfect. I don't even know what to say. It was an experience of a lifetime. We ended the day sleeping under the stars in the middle of nowhere.
30. Rowing down the Ganges River at sunrise. The river is no cleaner at this time of day than any other, but it is the time that most people use it to clean their clothes and bathe, so it appears cleaner. Also, at this time of day, people pray down by the water. It's nice, but also pretty sad.
32. Visiting my old friend Mia from Boston, and her boyfriend Nicolas in Zurich. These two are some of the most loving people I know. The photo below is a perfect example. I had a wonderful time with them.
33. Walking across Abbey Road in London. I don't know how many hours I've spent studying the cover of this Beatles album and imagining the scene in real life. I finally saw it first-hand, and yes it was a little disappointing because that's the beauty and power that imagination has over reality, but I'm still glad I went. I bet there is always at least one tourist here at any time of day.
34. Spending a day out on a photo shoot with the Smoke Fairies in London. It was a gorgeous, sunny-but-brisk day in London, and my friends (who are in a band called the Smoke Fairies) needed to take photos for the box sets they were piecing together. We used the city as a backdrop, eating Piccadilly Whips and visiting the Tower of London, Brick Lane, and other famous city spots. I'm in love with London.
35. Eating delicious meal after delicious meal in Bucharest, Romania. I'm not exaggerating when I say Romanian food is some of the best food I've ever had. Besides spending time with Monica's friends and family, the food in Romania was my favorite thing. I think I ordered three full meals for myself in the photo below. It was lunchtime.
Places to Return To
Here's a list of some of the places I didn't get to go on the trip, but would like to go one day.
1. Peru: Arequipa
2. Bolivia: Salt flats
3. Uruguay: Judging from the music of Los Iracundos alone, I want to go to Uruguay.
4. Brazil: the Amazon
5. Bali: Gili Islands
6. Cambodia: Koh Rong–an island off the coast
7. Thailand: Pai, Chiang Rai (and back to Chiang Mai and Koh Samed)
8. Laos: Southern/Northern parts, 4,000 Islands
9. Argentina: All over!
10. India: Goa and Mumbai (one day far from now)
11. Philippines: Boracay and Palawan
I actually didn't have too many difficulties on the trip, or at least in the sense of things going awry. Monica and I are very responsible, so we never missed a flight or had to deal with inconveniences like that. I started making this list and then realized I was hard-pressed to think of things to add on.
1. Getting sick in Rio de Janeiro. This was the only time I got really sick on the entire trip, and I feel lucky for that. It was a terrible four days in bed. At my darkest hour, I was almost at the point of going to the hospital, but I stuck it out and eventually started feeling better. I was able to catch the multiple flights to Bali, but it was tough.
2. Heat rashes. These aren't a big deal, but when you're traveling through a foreign country and you notice bumps all over your body for the first time, you start wondering if you contracted a life-threatening virus.
3. Two digital cameras down. The first one was stolen out of my backpack in a hostel storage room. Thankfully, it was just an extra camera that I didn't care about. I accidentally dunked the second camera in the ocean while peeing. Oops.
4. Pickpocketed in London. My wallet was stolen out of my bag as I walked through a crowded market. My mistake...
5. Buying camera in Hong Kong. Don't buy from those electronics stores with the flashy neon signs. It only leads to mind games, dishonesty and disappointment.
6. Bus missing our stop in Vietnam. While traveling on a night bus through Vietnam, the driver forgot to stop and let us off at our destination. We'd gone less than 20 minutes out of the way, but he refused to turn around to take us back. Instead, he tried to kick us off the bus at 3:00 am in the middle of nowhere. We refused, and ended up going to Nha Trang, a city we hadn't planned on seeing. Great beaches and a delicious restaurant called Texas BarBQ.
7. Thirty-hour bus ride from hell. Laos transportation is notorious for being slow, but really, 30 hours on a trip that was advertised as 18!
8. Dead Woman's Pass on Inka Trail. Mentioned above.
9. Biking down Death Road in Bolivia. It was bumpy and I was itchy.
10. Emergency evacuation from Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Mentioned above.
Most Important Items
When you're living out of a backpack for six months straight, you quickly whittle down your belongings to the bare essentials.
1. Hiking boots. I wore Frye
2. Long-sleeve shirt or light-weight coat.
3. Underwear. I liked Patagonia
4. Wool socks. Smartwool & REI
5. Water shoes/sandals. Salt Water Sandals
6. Power strip. So useful!
7. Allegra. Monica saved me a couple times by bringing her emergency Allegra stash. You never know when allergies are going to strike.
8. Tote bag. Perfect day bag for walking around. Usually filled with sunscreen, water, wallet, camera and sunglasses.
9. Travel towel. This was great to have in South America, where usually a towel was not provided. I don't think I ever used this outside of South America, though. We mostly stayed at hotels in Asia, India and Nepal, which provided towels to guests.
10. Ziplock bags. Great for storing wet clothes, and for keeping small items dry and together.
11. Compass. Paired with a map, you can get just about anywhere. Much more fun than using an iPhone.
12. Mini calculator. Monica picked up a small calculator that fit in her wallet while we were on the trip. It was very useful for calculating exchange rates and divvying up expenses.
13. Watch. I never wore a watch before the trip, but now if I don't put it on, I feel like something's missing. It was crucial on the trip since we were constantly moving about, catching buses, trains and planes.
Best Shopping Spots
Monica and I were careful with our money. We wanted souvenirs for ourselves and for gifts, but we were never sure what we might find around the corner, so we held off on buying too much in any one place. I kept my eye out for antiques--things like textiles, clothing, musical instruments--also art and jewelry. It would have been nice to know ahead of time what the best shopping spots would be. Here's a list of my favorites, in order of our itinerary:
1. Cusco, Peru. Cusco is a great spot for cool backpacks, purses, pouches and clothing made out of hand-embroidered fabrics. Wool gloves, mittens, hats and socks are great to buy here, just make sure you pay a little extra for the softer and better-quality baby alpaca wool.
2. La Paz, Bolivia. La Paz has an incredible selection of alpaca fetuses (honestly), wallets, bags, musical instruments, clothes, textiles, antiques and more for incredibly low prices.
3. Ubud, Bali. A great place to buy pretty much every souvenir you could ever want. I bought amazing woven basket-type purses, a beautiful necklace (made by an American expat artist living in Bali), a backpack and a crocheted dress.
4. Bangkok, Thailand (Chatuchak Market). This is the biggest flea market in the world. You can buy literally ANYTHING here. I bought a $3 dress that I wore almost every day for the past three months. Best shopping spot of the trip.
5. Chiang Mai, Thailand (street sales). You can find some amazing old things being sold on the streets of Chiang Mai at night. Just walk around to find them.
6. Luang Prabang, Laos. I had so much fun shopping in Luang Prabang. The night market is definitely a highlight of the city. I bought hand-made cards, antique baby hats, and some other odd things at this huge street sale that happens nightly.
7. Hanoi, Vietnam. Hanoi has a multitude of tiny antique and music stores. They have some great stuff if you are willing to dig around a bit.
8. Hoi An, Vietnam. This is the place to go for all your custom clothing shopping. They can make anything your heart desires, or even create a replica of your favorite pair of shoes in any color combination you can imagine. Endless fun.
9. India. You can get all sorts of things all over India. Delhi is a great place to buy second-hand clothing. Rugs, blankets, linens, masks, wood blocks, ceramics, musical instruments, leather-bound books and inlaid marble table tops are some of the other common items to buy in India.
11. Pokhara and Kathmandu, Nepal. These are two excellent cities for buying all sorts of cards, camping/hiking gear (knock-off), jewelry, blankets, you name it!
This concludes my ambitious blog post. If you have any other ideas for lists you'd like me to create, drop me a line in the comments section. This has been a fun one to write.