Days on the road: 335
Number of beds: 9
Countries visited: Georgia, Russia
Postcards sent: 0
Last month has been very different from the previous ten: we are finally on familiar territory – food, language, architecture, people, culture. All of it we’ve known since early childhood, and all of it part of that nebulous mass of smells, sounds, and sights that to us means home. Much of this month we’ve spent living at various places that we’ve in the past called home – where all artifacts carry that deep familiarity that only comes from sub-conscious memory from early childhood. We’ve seen quite a bit friends and relatives – meeting several extended family members for the first time in person. We even managed to attend a wedding!
As to be expected after any trip, we’ve been asked about our impressions, thoughts, that we’ve gathered overseas. So, rather than reflect on our time spent nearest and dearest in Georgia and Russia — which we really haven’t had time to properly process, we thought it would be fun to share some random thoughts on travel that pop into our head at first notice. Here are 12 random observations to mark the passage of eleven months and anticipate almost a full year (!) of being on the road.
Jenia’s SIX Thoughts on Travel
1. Just like everything else in life, travel is a ‘unique to you’ experience. You can look at all the pretty pictures, and read amazing stories on the blogs or travel magazines, prepare and research as much as you want – it won’t be the same. The way you approach life, people, and various circumstances will impact and change your personal travel experience. As will the weather, individuals around you, and any other factors that happen on that day. We had this lesson in Mongolia. But here’s another example on a smaller scale: We had a completely unremarkable day motor-biking around ancient ruins scattered near Mandalay, Myanmar. I have read plenty of accounts suggesting that the experience and the sights are a must – but we weren’t very impressed. Maybe it was the heat, maybe the other tourists, maybe the sights themselves? Plus I was feeling a bit under the weather. It just wasn’t our thing. But then, completely by chance, we came across a monk initiation ceremony. It was beautiful, glorious, and absolutely one of top three experiences of our travels in that country. It’s a unique experience, happened completely by chance, and there is no way that any one of you can replicate it to a t. Of course, you can totally happen on a monk initiation ceremony sometime, somewhere in Myanmar –but again who knows if it will be your highlight?!
2. Packing light is the only way to travel. But don’t forget an extra-large plastic bag, in case, you know you pick up some souvenirs. Or you might want to combine your two luggage pieces into one. First of all on packing light: can you really be bothered to lug around giant containers filled with stuff that no one around you, or really you yourself, care to see? Say you are going on a two-week vacation to Italy. Yes, wonderful opportunity for a new outfit everyday, or so I used to think. But in reality the number of times I have worn the same cute/fab/pleasing ensemble has no bearing on my mood, or how good of a day I have. And certainly the people who surround me have no idea how many times I have worn the same outfit, they can just see that it looks nice. Sadly (or fortunately?) that last statement is fully applicable to my husband as well. But do you know how much better it feels to wheel around a small carry on suitcase rather than lugging a huge one, or how quickly it is possible to pack with less stuff. On bringing an extra large duffle – say you buy a wonderful side table at a flea market in Rome. Or – much more likely in our case – say you are flying on a budget airline that charges a fee for a large carry-on piece, as well as, checked luggage. Like magic, two large carry-on pieces, or even two checked bags, become one. Saving you as much as $45. Anyway, pack light, but be prepared for possibilities.
Off we go with our weekend packs on the NYC subway, USA – picture by Helen. Unloading the supplies from slow boat between Mandalay and Bagan, Myanmar. PS – if we didn’t pack light, our adventure on a motorcycle through Laos and Vietnam would have never happened. Sergey investigates directions somewhere in northern Vietnam.
3. For me, meeting people in various places I’ve visited have been the most interesting and rewarding aspect of our travel. From debating India’s socio-economic ills and solutions to them with our BnB host, to comparing governance issues between China and Russia with new friends, to discussing Japan’s cultural peculiarities, to hearing the perspective and hopes of people in Myanmar on political change in their country, hearing from Georgians how they feel about Russians as people and Russia as a state – all of it has been utterly fascinating. Now when I read the news I think back to those conversations, I can visualize and contextualize. This is why even as an introvert who absolutely requires downtime to recharge, I am a strong believer in couchsurfing. Sitting around and talking in a non-descript apartment somewhere in Kunming is as rewarding if not more so than exploring another ancient temple. Perhaps understanding of this has been the most unexpected bit of the travel experience so far.
4. Travel opened my eyes to the fact that there are many places around the world where I could totally live. Its been a game that Sergey and I have played ever since we set foot on our first train journey to Nizhniy Novgorod. I am kind of flabbergasted by the fact that I would be up for a year or two here and there, and everywhere. I can easily see myself in Kyoto, Seoul, Bangkok, Hanoi, Budapest (current fave!). Even countries that we didn’t particularly enjoy traveling in, I think would be a fascinating experience to live in. But at the same time this thinking applies only to cities. As much as I enjoyed being marooned on the Thai island of Lanta for a month, I am rather skeptical about actually living in a small place. I like vibrant, ever changing places and spaces.
5. The hardest bit of travel is to start. Several years ago a friend of ours planned to travel to Vietnam to visit her sister who was working in Hanoi. They made plans for a bit of a tour around the country. I remember thinking that it must be such an undertaking: to travel to a completely new continent, half way around the world, to figure out where to go, how to get there, where to stay, what to eat. And what if you get stuck somewhere and no one speaks English? I was just utterly taken aback by her bravery. And I totally did not imagine that I would ever do such a thing. Ha! Not taking anything away from my friend, but all my concerns were totally overblown. Travel isn’t hard, on any budget, the biggest thing is to get started. And then its all about awesome adventures )
6. I am a total convert to long-term travel. I think everyone should do it at least once in a lifetime. Maybe more. Maybe for a few months, maybe for a few years. But just do it. The amount of different perspectives, understandings, and sheer joy that I got out of this experience has surpassed every expectation that I’ve had when we set out on this journey. And it has to be replicable across any and all individuals who do the same – even though travel experience is a unique thing (see #1) the benefits of it are not. And on a totally superficial note, the number of people who’ve recently told me that I am looking my best, as if glowing from the inside, has been kind of unreal. I am not saying that I am this good looking person, but rather that doing something fulfilling and not entirely stressful is an awesome way to get yourself calibrated.
Who wouldn’t feel awesome after spending a week in Hoi An, Vietnam, which included things like awesome tea time at the Reach Out cafe? Or walking around the royal citadel in the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue — admiring water lilies?
PS: I have considered this as my random thought on travel but decided it was too shallow of a thought. But here it is anyway: zip-off pants, even in a variant of shorts, just make you look like a tool. So don’t do it.
Sergey’s SIX Thoughts on Travel
1. One of the frequent questions we get from friends and relatives is whether traveling is dangerous. Our immediate reply is very simple. What is dangerous? Is it dangerous to walk around Northeast of DC at 11pm? Is it dangerous to ride a motorcycle taxi with three people on board? Is it dangerous to eat on the street of Bangkok? Is it dangerous to talk to strangers? The answer is no to all of the above. At least for us. (Well, on second thought Jenia might question walking around anywhere in DC after 11 pm alone…) Danger can be evaluated on a spectrum, and if you anticipate things to come and are constantly aware of your surroundings, risks can be mitigated. My mom is afraid of geckos, little, friendly guys that hang out by the lights all over Asia and eat mosquitoes. Are they dangerous? No. Are they useful and friendly? Yes. Is she still afraid of them? Yes. I am dreading coming back to the US where every aspect of my life is regulated. God (any of them, see #5) forbid, I open a can of beer at the park and lay on the grass drinking it… It is surely the most dangerous activity that could lead to even more dangerous encounter with the local lawmen…
Motoring around Savannakhet, Laos in the middle of Songkran (otherwise known as Lao Pi Mai, or Lao New Year) — not the safest activity by anyone standards. Hiking in Tusheti mountains of Georgia — safe-ish, we’ve met plenty of guard dogs, two masked horsemen, and one bandit with a kinjal dagger.
2. Work and life balance is important, no one can deny that. Yet, when you are constantly running in your personalized hamster wheel, it is awfully hard to figure out where exactly you are running to and why you are running in a first place. Once you escape for an extended period of time, your thought process changes, your perception of life changes. Through observations of various cultures and their habits, we truly realized that no matter how important money and work might seem, life and quality of living is where it’s at. Lao people find it difficult to understand the concept of work in a Western sense. Family and friends provide resources, land provides food and shelter, naps are easy to come by, just hang a hammock and you are dreaming in a minute. We’ve had a lengthy conversation with a western bar owner in Luang Prabang about his staff. The most difficult part was keeping on staff for longer than two-three weeks! He told us a story about a new employee starting: came in right on time, was listening well, did a decent job. At noon, the restaurant was quiet, so he found a nice shady spot and took a nap. The owner was bewildered, how could you possibly take a nap on your first day? Well, it’s quite simple, as it turns out. They’ve had a little talk, of course. Next day, he chose not to come in to work… What kind of job is this where you can’t just take a nap?
3. Technology is your friend. A friend can also be mean to you sometimes, but he/she is still a friend. Although we met some people who mistrusted technology and used only guidebooks in their travel, we benefited greatly from some apps that would not have been around should our trip started few years back. From budget keeping with TrailWallet to offline gps maps with Maps with Me, it’s been a great success. Being new to a city, you often feel disoriented, however, with minimum preparation, say 15 minutes, you can have a smart phone full of apps ready to go. If starting travel from US, buying a used iPhone or Android phone on craigslist will save you sooo much time. However, it goes without saying that the joy of travel is not about carefully researched itinerary, but about discovery and coping with unexpected. Technology is your parachute in the event your paraglide fails 🙂 For more apps we’ve used read our Month 5 round up.
4. We found that phone/internet service is often very inexpensive in most countries we visit. In Vietnam, $10 dollar balance + a new sim card lasted us close to 4 weeks! In US, people often find themselves locked with one carrier for years at a time. To make matters worse, the phones are locked so one cannot simply move to another carrier or put in a new sim card when abroad… Freedom of choice is something US customers do not have. Only by leaving the system you realize how abused you have been. As we write this, our dear US readers, a bill is sitting on Obama’s desk to give you more power.
5. I do not know if you are a religious person, if you believe in God, or if you attend a church/temple/synagogue/forest/ocean. Honestly, it is none of my business. We’ve been asked a good number of times to define ourselves with a religion on this trip, not in any malicious way, just as a reference, to help people we meet make sense of us. And almost every time the reaction is the same when I mention the lack of religion in my life. For many it is close to blasphemy. They simply cannot comprehend it. Why am I talking about this? Simply because too often most fail to recognize that their gods are local and far from universal. We have seen many peoples with many gods – all are important, of course, in their location. Personally, I think it just shows our need, as human beings, to believe in something. It is especially visible when borders are crossed in a rapid succession. Oh, right wing zealots, are by far my least favorite kind of people, whether you are in US or India.
6. I realized that I am in love with Vietnam and move there in a heartbeat. The culture, the people, the food, the pace of life, the fashion, all is close to amazing in my opinion. Jenia’s favorite is surely Thailand, but for me, uniqueness and uncanny hard working ethic of Vietnamese really won me over. Have I mentioned affordability? I am longing for some street phở for breakfast with a basket of greens, shaker of ground chillies, and a couple slices of lime, tasty! The cities of Vietnam have so much to offer, yet countryside is equally stunning. We’ve spent total of five weeks there, and I can easily say, I would be happy to spend, at the very least, five more.