See the trip summary, periodic updates, and some advice for others planning a similar trip.
We quit our jobs, closed up the house, and traveled the world for six months. We planned the basic itinerary, but we made many destination decisions as we went. When we look back at the trip, we are so happy that we did it -- the experiences were amazing. We are happy to be home. We are not necessarily different people, but we are more experienced and more knowledgeable about other people and places of this very large world. We sometimes think back to a year ago, and realize that back then our trip was just an idea, and we could have never imagined doing so much in a year.
One way to summarize the trip is to recount a list of the activities we would not have done this year without having gone on the trip. A quick list would include...
Well, we have just finished our first 5 weeks of our trip around the world! We feel like this is a good time to do a quick 'In Review..' because it is a significant point in our travels. The first 5 weeks was completely planned out before we left Atlanta. Everything after this we will have to plan away from home, some ahead of time, some as we go.
We have openly acknowledged with each other that we really miss home, not in a way that we want to go back sooner, but more just the people, the things we are used to, and the easy hang-out lifestyle. And Bailey (the dog), of course. One very frustrating point is that the UNC Tarheels are #1 in the nation right now and we cannot catch a single game! Anne Marie (Dan's sister) was kind enough to tape UNC beating Duke and send it to us, so now we just have to find a VCR! It has helped to be on email often. Also, our 6 nieces/nephews in Atlanta (and Dan's Mom) sent us some wonderful Valentine's Day cards -- it was very sweet!
One of our critical goals for this trip was to be more social on our travels. This might seem odd, but we have found that we can very happily go away and just hang out with the two of us and be very happy, without talking to anyone else. It is not that hard to be more social, but we felt that it was important for us to focus on being sociable during this trip. We have definitely achieved this goal. We made friends with Richard and Jane in the Amazon Basin, Luis and Rose Mary in Quito, and Ian and Liz on Kilimanjaro, as well as just being open to talking with the many nice people we have met in every destination. Now we just need to be sure to keep in touch to make sure it really counts.
One of our few regrets so far falls along the lines of camera envy. We love our digital camera for the immediate gratification we get and quick placement on the web, but it has almost no zoom capabilities. A super-zooming camera would have been huge in the Amazon Basin and on Safari. We looked in Quito, Sau Paulo, and Nairobi for a zoom lens for our digital camera but realized it was hopeless. Now, we wish we had also bought a regular camera with a huge zoom for potential "wall hanging" pictures. We might still do this, of course.
We decided after the chill of the Andes Trek and the Kilimanjaro climb that we should cancel our plans to trek to Everest base camp. We just do not have the right (i.e. warm enough) equipment, When we bought the camping equipment for the camping/treks, we prioritized the weight and packability over warmth, and paid for it on the mountains. Since there will not be the luxury of High Country/Galyan's/REI on our travels to upgrade our gear, we sent all of our camping gear home and figured we can do Everest another time, as a trip on its own. One other point is that we have already been higher (barely) than Everest base camp at the summit of Kilimanjaro so the luster has lessened a bit.
As we expected, we have over and over again realized how good we have it in Atlanta and the US. We cannot see how many of the people in the countries we have visited have any way to rise out of their poor economic situation. One might be the most motivated, intelligent and capable person in the world, but the political and economic conditions of so many countries give people no chance to improve their situation.
We had decided to keep the web up to date so that our family and friends could enjoy our trip with us. But we also realized it is our way of recording the trip, and will serve as a way for us to enjoy our memories, looking at it for years to come. It takes lots of time to create the web content but it really forces us to think about what we have done and not just breeze through the days without appreciating our experiences.
There were some significant decisions we had to make as we started building the site, such as writing in 1st person vs. 3rd person. It is awkward to write in the third person, but we decided that it is the best approach. We started using first person, but since Dan has typically been the one actually writing the content, it sounded like it was Dan's web site, not Dan & Kristen's. Kristen is reviewing/fixing the content and participating in all picture selection and overall design, so it was not fair doing first person. We also could not combine content if everything was 'I' this and 'I' that -- it got very confusing.
We are getting happier with the design of the web, but it will likely change many more times before we are done!
We have of course had to limit the number of pictures we put on the web just for practicality purposes. We have talked about having a 'coming home' party similar to our 'going away' party, but this time we are thinking about having a slide show that shows all the pictures continuously running on the big screen TV so people can see all the pictures. We will see whether or not that happens.
We have just finished our first 3 months of our trip around the world! Here are some thoughts after 'winging it' for the last 8 weeks.
Before we left for our trip, someone suggested that we bring crackers or peanut butter along so that we do not starve. Boy, were they wrong -- we have had almost every type of food available to us everywhere we have visited. If we wanted, we could eat American fast-food in every city. Instead, we have made an effort to eat local food as much as possible. We have been far from hungry -- almost to the other extreme!
After the first five weeks, we have been making plans 'on the fly', reading travel books the day before we travel to a country, trying different approaches to finding accommodations and seeing the sights. We found that travel agents are good for some things like airline tickets, since we cannot purchase them online without a mail delivery address. But they are not good for hotels or tours, because we have to pay up front, locking ourselves into a specific hotel and schedule. We found that the best approach was to lock down just the first night in a nice hotel, arrange for a ride from the airport, and then spend the first day in the new country finding the best place to stay and planning sight seeing activities.
We are sure this is a nitpick, but we have come to realize that most airlines/airports around the world (except British Airways, Quantas) do not board first and business class ahead of the rest of the plane. This might not seem like a big deal, but in unfamiliar airports with huge crowds, we were ready to get on the plane asap once we reached the departure gate.
Many of the countries we have visited during this segment (notably Cairo and India) seem to have multiple people working at jobs typically reserved for one person. For example, in our Cairo hotel we encountered 5-10 hotel employees as we passed between the front door and the elevator. We could not figure out each person's role, but clearly there is an expanded 'greeter / customer assistance' role there.
In India, we felt like the excess of assistance was tip driven. For example, to carry our two bags to the room, at least three people would do the job, and then wait at the door to see if we would tip each of them -- a single person could have carried both bags. Also, on entering or departing from a taxi from the hotel, we would encounter at least five people outside the hotel door, one opening the car door, one carrying the baggage from the hotel door to the taxi trunk, one lifting the items into the trunk, another giving the taxi driver directions, another checking to see if we needed anything else. You would have to be there, to appreciate how awkward it was.
We found that hotels on a particular continent typically have all the same TV channels provided by a standard provider. For example, all through Asia we watched a selection of Star Network channels, in Africa another major provided all the channels. This situation might be considered similar to the common cable and network providers in the United States, but we found it interesting that there was typically only a single provider and it reached across at a continent level (or at least in the countries we visited on a continent).
We realized that we really should have brought more US$ cash and in smaller denominations. When we enter a country, we always have a need to tip before we have a chance to get local currency. Or if we can get local currency, we cannot get small enough denominations for a tip. We are not sure where we would have kept the cash, but we would liked to have many more $1 bills with us.
Although we expected the pressure of tipping in many foreign countries, we have found it extremely exhausting. We cannot wait to get into a country where tipping is not such a big deal.
We expected to be approached by beggars in many countries and we were right. All the guidebooks clearly state that we should not contribute to the culture of begging by giving to beggars, but we find it hard not to give when we know that a mere pittance from us would make a huge impact on the beggar. But then we have also gone to the other extreme reaction, and get the feeling that some of the beggars are career beggars, not truly needy people.
Three month doldrums
After three months of traveling, and 8 weeks of the added stress of planning the next day every day, we have had our fist sense of 'wow, we are tired of this'. The feeling quickly goes away, but we have felt it.
Credit Card currency hoax
With extreme frustration we realized this month that American Express has been robbing us blind with exchange rates and conversion fees. Out of habit, we had been charging everything on our Amex card. But then we started looking more closely at the bills online, and we realized that they charge 2-10% higher in US$ than we expected to pay when calculating from the foreign currency. This added cost is quite frustrating especially when we successfully negotiate down a price of a hotel room or tour, and then Amex removes that savings when we use their card. Also, many businesses are adding 3-7% to their price to even use a credit card.
We did some research and determined that Kristen's MBNA MasterCard charges almost to the dollar the amount we expected, so we plan to use it going forward. Additionally, we will use the ATM card more often and pay in local currency. Part of the issue with this approach, though, is that we never want to end up with extra foreign currency when we leave a country or we pay to exchange it at the exchange booth.
Having the laptop with us has allowed us to keep great documentation of the trip, and the global internet access account has allowed us the convenience of logging in from our hotels. But this convenience has come at a cost. Although global roaming costs only 10¢/minute (on top of hotel telephone charges), our March global access bill was $265 for 6 hours of internet access The web is expensive, but worth it.
Other Miscellaneous Points
Cricket is everywhere, with matches on every time we turn on the TV. We still cannot figure out the rules and cannot keep our interest in it for more than a few minutes.
We found and ordered a zoom lens for the digital camera and will get it soon (sent from the US via Dan's sister) -- we hope we still have some good long distance pictures on which to use it.
Most coke cans in Africa are half the size of cans in the US.
Our weather has generally been great – shorts or long pants, never really cold never too hot!
The only US sport that seems to have real international coverage is the NBA. The major golf tournaments (ie Masters) are sometimes covered, but not everywhere.
Reading the website, a US resident planning a long trip similar to ours will find many suggestions to help them on their trip planning. We have summarized some of these points below.
This might seem obvious, but we found that could have bought most items in other countries for much cheaper than we paid in the US. For example, we brought extra toothpaste, lotions, medicine, etc, when we could have bought these in many of the countries. Of course, careful planning is necessary, because there are definitely places where we could not have found any of those items. The real point is don't think that all foreign cities are void of the items we have -- many are very similar to American cities.
Review Credit Card Currency Policies
Review all your credit card foreign exchange policies and take the cards that have the best policy. We did not get a chance to double check this before we left, and we ended up losing lots of money using our Amex card.
Bring Lots of Small Denomination US$
Be sure to bring lots of $1and $5 bills. Many countries will accept US$ and we often found the opportunity/need to tip in a country before we could get local currency in small enough currencies. We found getting change and breaking larger US bills very difficult everywhere.
Bring an Extension Cord
If you are taking any technology (e.g. laptop, battery chargers, etc) be sure to bring a US extension cord along with your power converters. To plug in more than one item at a time, you need either many converters or an extension cord and you cannot buy an extension cord that supports US plugs in most countries.
Don't Take a Power Transformer
We wrestled with whether or not to bring power transformers in addition to converters. This might seem obvious but so much discussion on the web suggests that transformers could be necessary. The need for a converter is independent of the country -- it is dependent on your equipment. Most power cords have the voltage and hertz they support marked on their base -- if they say 100-240V or 50-60hz then you are ok and do not need a transformer (of course you might not need one anyway, depending on where you are going). If you find they do not support the range, you should consider a different technology item, or buy a transformer in the country you think you might need it -- the transformers are way too heavy to carry!
Take a Cable Lock
Our relatively inexpensive cable lock was a critical item in almost every country. If a hotel did not offer a safe, we used the cable lock to secure the laptop bag closed and attached it to a large immovable item in the room. Having the lock provided us with a sense of security even in the least secure situations. If you are staying in hostels or camping, this will likely be the only way to secure your baggage.
Beware of Shipping Costs
Beware that shipping anything back from other countries can be super expensive. In many countries the postal systems were not reliable enough to depend on (according to locals) so DHL and FedX were the only options and they were very expensive. Don't plan to buy and ship, unless you are willing to spend.
Think About Seasons
Map out the seasons along with your itinerary. We visited most countries either in their off-season or at the end of their in-season. We did not have much flexibility in our timing or direction, but if you have an option, be sure to consider the best time to visit certain regions. The heat and cold can be unbearable and really take away from your trip.