Reflections on Wandering

It’s now been over a month since we arrived back in the US. With a bit of distance from the whole experience, we wanted to take some time to jot down some of the major reflections and revelations. We plan to write a separate post on advice for people considering doing something similar that includes more practical info on logistics, budgeting, etc. For now, the more philosophical and abstract thoughts will have to suffice. Our apologies for the stream-of-consciousness style.

•    The world is not nearly as scary as we usually make it out to be. Most people have asked us if we were ever really scared or felt unsafe. Surprisingly, we almost never did. There were a few moments (see: our Mumbai taxi nightmare), but for almost six months we were in fairly exotic places without incident or fear of incident. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule (we didn’t wander through Syria), but the American perspective often assumes the worst about unfamiliar places. 

•    All tourists hate it when other tourists are around because it compromises their “authentic” experience. The same tourists often then complain about a lack of reasonable accommodation options or Western-level food sanitation. By the end of the trip, I definitely had the best memories of places that weren’t necessarily huge tourist attractions, but rather spontaneous experiences outside the norm (ex. country brunch in Cambodia, wandering Istanbul backstreets). The one place where over-tourism has made the experience distinctly better is in Cappadocia where the sheer number of hot-air balloons is a breathtaking sight. 

•    Then again, meeting other tourists along the way is one of the joys of traveling for a prolonged period. We met and befriended people from all walks of life and all over the world, and often we knew immediately that they shared our adventurous spirit and desire to try new things and break the mold.

•    The stereotypes exist for a reason (the Swiss are the nicest travelers, the Spanish are linguistically insular, the Aussies are obnoxious drunkards), but they don’t always hold. The biggest truism of the trip was that you would be irritated by tourists of almost any nationality if they were traveling in groups of more than 4. And you could almost always find common ground, and probably like most people who were traveling in groups smaller than that.

•    Figure out what you value and plan your budget accordingly. This is borderline practical advice, but Whitney and I gradually came to realize the hierarchy of our values: travel like peasants, sleep like merchants, eat like kings. We didn’t mind walking a lot, eschewing most taxis. We almost never took a plane or a train when a bus would suffice (bonus: we listened to almost the entire Harry Potter series while on busses around the world) We opted for private rooms (we did enough dorm life in college, just ask John Callahan) but we never stayed at particularly fancy places. Most importantly, we ate very well. In most of the cities we visited, we ate at the best, or at least most interesting, restaurants. We went out of our way to seek out new food experiences and get advice from locals, and we were willing to pay up when it seemed worth it. Food is something we both love and so we made it a priority. We expect this logic will translate into real life as we trade off vacations, rent and living costs. 

•    The world is not as cheap as we thought it would be. If you’re willing to stay in dorms and eat street kebabs for 3 meals a day, you can definitely get around the world on a shoestring, but if you want to have some variety in your food and a private room, you’re going to pay up. In many ways, this is a good thing—the rest of the world is gaining purchasing power. But for our particular trip it surprised us.

•    Cash is still king in much of the world. There is much written about the emerging markets’ middle class and the enormity of the unbanked population. We found this to be resoundingly true. All over the world people are skeptical of banks as savings vehicles. In the few cases we could use credit cards, there were sizable premiums charged that negated the value of any points. There definitely is a big business opportunity out there for whoever solves this, but there are big psychological hurdles. 

•    The greatest form of fatigue you experience on long trips is decision fatigue. When you’re living at home, you take for granted that you know where to eat, how to take the subway, where to exercise, etc. When you’re in a foreign country, particularly with language barriers, the burden of these decisions rises markedly. The rise of travel technology (namely TripAdvisor) is both a blessing and a curse for travelers. Gone are the days when you just wander through city streets and eat at a random restaurant. Now you can call on the previous experience of 10,000 travelers before you in neatly quantified ways. But don’t confuse precision with accuracy. Some of our best experiences happened when we went “off the grid” and followed our gut (tip: look around for the places crowded with locals, and then point at other people’s meals)

•    Haggling is exhausting and some people are just naturally better at it than others. We came to accept the premium I paid versus locals or diligent bargainers as just a tax on my laziness and conflict avoidance tendencies. It isn’t a surprise that places where fixed pricing is normal are generally wealthier. It’s the same thing with places where lines (or queues for you Commonwealth folk) function. It’s not direct causation obviously, but fixed pricing and lining up imply a certain degree of social buy-in. These social institutions make people more willing to trust each other, which foster collaboration, investment, etc. 

•    It’s hard to find somewhere in the world that really feels isolated. (There was WiFi at Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal.) That said, if you have the discipline, it’s possible to be disconnected almost anywhere. In 25 weeks of travel, the longest we went without Internet connectivity or a mobile phone was 9 days. That’s not a terribly long time, but I realized it was the longest time I had been “off the grid” in at least a decade. 

•    America should be lauded for how well it has done in creating a prosperous society with the level of diversity it has, and the size of the country. Governance and civil society on the scale that we achieve it is truly an epic feat. The whole world struggles with the same issues that America faces (class inequality, legacies of racial injustice, etc.). It’s impressive that our strife does not lead to the same level of conflict we see in lots of places. Who knows if that will continue, but at least for now, the US system seems fairly robust. 

•    The brands we expected to be most dominant, visible, and successful in the world were probably Coca Cola and McDonalds. The actual most successful brand? By far Angry Birds. It was everywhere. Go figure.

•    We spent a lot of time reflecting on the variety of cuisine we enjoy on a regular basis in New York City. It should perhaps be obvious, but it was still a shock how much the rest of the world eats the same things over and over every day. It’s a real luxury to be able to eat French food for breakfast, Vietnamese for lunch, and Ethiopian for dinner.

•    Gender politics have ramped up in our national dialogue over the past year or so, but it is definitely a global issue. Leaving aside the few places where Whitney felt uncomfortable or threatened, the more consistent issue we experienced was a lack of willingness to deal with me. It was frustrating for Mac to shoulder so much of the burden of the painful things like haggling, calling to make reservations, and complaining about service. But in many places, male vendors and proprietors refused to negotiate with me or simply ignored my existence.

•    The issues on the ground in Turkey are widely misreported by the American media, and (perhaps therefore) misunderstood by many Americans. In fact, the struggles in Turkey are more violent and overt, but in many ways, they parallel the struggles we’re experiencing here in America. Far from being about jihadist terrorist factions, they are about a historically secular nation struggling against a conservative, religious force that has come to power and is attempting to radically shift the national agenda. It was also startling to realize that the protestors and the riot police all looked to be about 18-25, and that violence would surge and then quickly abate, leaving everyone involved looking exhausted, shaken, and often, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on their smartphones outside Shake Shack.

•    We found that we especially enjoyed the parts of our trip that took us outside the cities and into nature. We love New York and urban life, but we felt healthiest and most invigorated and inspired when we were out swinging from treetops or climbing mountains. This is not to say we’re going to go native and start our Luddite colony on an island somewhere (but if we did, who’d be with us?), but it was a good reminder that we’ve been missing nature in our lives.

•    We missed the simple, often intangible things more than we actually missed things. We missed community: cooking for friends and playing board games on our roof. We missed home as a concept, not necessarily a specific space. We missed having a part of the world that belonged to us, and walking down the street and knowing what’s around the corner (and where to get the best bagel, coffee, cocktail, pho, etc.)

•    We didn’t miss cars and car payments, clothes (well, not much—we got used to our teeny tiny little wardrobes!), TV (though we did watch Homeland and a couple of movies), alarm clocks, rent and apartment maintenance, etc.

•    We learned a lot abut each other, and we learned actively, growing in our relationship in ways we didn’t expect. After 7 years together, we truly thought we knew everything there was to know, but we were wrong. This trip could have ended differently if we’d been passive about our new knowledge. Instead, we talked about it and its implications. I’m a lot shier than Mac knew, which forces him to often be the primary bargainer and phone caller. This is something I actively worked on, because I knew it took a toll on him. And conversely, he tried to get more comfortable with it, because he recognizes that as much as I’m working at it, it’s going to take some time and I may never be as outgoing as he is. 

I, on the other hand, learned that Mac needs to feel that he is getting true value for money. A lack of fixed pricing will drive him absolutely insane, and he will not be able to enjoy the outcome of bargaining because he’ll continue to wonder if he got a good deal. As a result, I learned to step up and deal with much of the purchasing of souvenirs, because I feel that a story and an experience is its own kind of value, and while I bargain, I’m able to walk away and be happy with my purchase. At the same time, Mac worked to be more comfortable with the idea that in some places, you will never know if you’re getting true value and so you have to be comfortable taking that leap—you can’t let uncertainty ruin an experience for you.

All in all, it was an amazing experience. It’s hard to articulate all the ways it has shaped our lives and we're confident it will continue to for years to come. For those considering taking the plunge, we highly recommend it. It’s a luxury to have the time/resources to see the world before real-world responsibilities rear their ugly heads. Not everyone will have the chance, but if you’re fortunate enough, it’s something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.