This is somewhat of a prequel. When I graduated from college, I set a goal for myself that I wanted to travel to 30 countries before I turned 30. This monumentous occasion happened in January, but I actually accomplished my goal at 28; I’m now up to 36.5 (Nigeria sort of counts). Most of this blog has been about living abroad and travelling while living in Thailand, but I figured in the spirit of all this “throwback whatever” stuff, I would post a short story about each place that I’ve been to.
As part of my origin story, I’ll also include why I decided to write about this stuff:
- I like writing. I used to write a lot in college, sometimes because they made me, sometimes because I liked it. Never because I was any good at it.
- I am lazy and when I come back from a trip and everyone asks me how it went, I just say good, really good (except for Laos) and then change the subject. There, my secret is out. I mean, what else can I say? I’m not going to stand there and describe every awesome detail to someone who is just asking me how it went because they feel obligated, unless I’m drunk and then you’re in for it. I am also never sure who really cares and who is the obligatory “how was your trip” asker. So, here’s a place where people who care, and people who don’t care, can hear about it.
- I want to be able to remember my trips. This was brought to my attention when my friend John was talking about the “Chicken and Cheese” sandwich that we had in Amsterdam. It was arguably the best thing either of us had ever eaten and yet, I didn’t remember it until he mentioned it. What happens if I can’t store all those memories in someone elses brain? They get lost, but if I put them on the internet, they are here forever, and ever and ever.
- I’m banking on a multi-million dollar book and movie and action figure deal. I think it’s a solid plan that will bail me out of the mountains of debt I am sure to incur on my quest.
Every story has to start somewhere, so here goes:
1. USA — I’m counting it. It fits my criteria, it’s a country, that I’ve been to, before I turned 30. This is my list and I make the rules so it counts. To be fair, I have been to 46 states (gotten speeding tickets in 5) and driven coast to coast thrice, so there.
2. Bahamas — I went here when I was 8. It also counts because I wrote a special report and presented it to my second grade class. This was also my first memory of Dusty the Delta Lion. Favorite memories — braiding all of my super long hair Barbie’s hair into braids because I wasn’t allowed to get them – the beggar kid in Nassau who said he would sing us a nice song for a quarter – adding conch to my list of 2 sea foods that I will eat (haven’t had it since) – getting attacked by fire ants — swimming with barracudas — going to the “wave beach”, where I always thought I was going to drown, as opposed to the “hammock beach” which, as the name implies, was more appropriate for a second grader.
3. UK — I went when I was 13 and the only thing I cared about doing was going to the Doc Martin store. It was a great trip, and my first trip to a place where people talked funny (I didn’t go to the south until I was 18). Motivated by watching Braveheart, Meg and I went back for spring break 2005.
4. Canada — Everyone remembers their first strip club. Mine was on a sailing team trip in 2005 in Windsor. I had an out of body experience when the boys bought a $9 lap dance for me in the champagne room and the stripper asked if I wanted some gum for when we make out later. Besides that memorable trip, I have been to Canada a couple other times and it’s one of the most naturally beautiful places I’ve ever been. Go to Banff, you can drive there, I did, no excuses. Just do it, you won’t be disappointed. Plus you can go camping and there is nothing like falling asleep holding on to a claw hammer because that’s the only thing in the sailing tool box that would maim the bear that is going to come eat you in the night.
5. Ireland — This is my favorite place that I’ve ever been. My first time there was coincidentally over St. Patrick’s day (part of the Braveheart trip). Talk about a bunch of crazies. I’ve been here 4 times and every time is just so awesome. The people are the best of anywhere I’ve traveled, the scenery is beautiful and it’s relatively affordable. The second time I went, Meg and I hailed a cab at the train station, and before we knew it, Patrick, the 50 year old cab driver, was walking around Blarney Castle with us, giving me extra camera batteries and giving us the tour of Cork. I also met Usher and drank a Guiness with his crew at a pub in Dublin after he performed with Justin Bieber, NBD.
6. France — Been to Paris, Nice, Cannes and had a 2 hour stop at the Avignon train station where it was so hot I became unconscious in the train. If anyone ever tells me they dislike Paris, I will call them a liar or a Republican. I won’t go into too much detail about it, but it’s just great. Go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe at night. The south of France is awesome, mostly because the beach in Nice is made out of really smooth gray rocks; they remind me of river rocks. And I hate sand, so it’s a match made in heaven. When I was in Cannes, it was during the film festival so the city was really alive, I don’t know what it’s like otherwise, but they have the red carpet all rolled out and all sorts of cool stuff set up for the festival.
7. Belgium — My first Belgian experience was when we met the Tram Wizard. We were transferring from Luxembourg on our way to Amsterdam and we (me, Meg and John) decided to go get some Belgian waffles. The tram wizard walked us through how to do everything like we were born yesterday and herded us to the door of the tram to make sure we got on it. After our gauffres, that’s waffles in French, we went back to the train station to give the tram wizard a lovely gift, a can of Jupiler beer that we bought in a vending machine. He said that our smiles were his gift. And that’s why he’s the tram wizard. John drank the gift on the way to Amsterdam.
8. Netherlands — Chicken and Cheese?? I’ve been here 4 times, twice on my own, once on an “architectural” trip while I was studying abroad and once for 4 hours on a layover to Greece. In college, our professor basically bussed us into the housing projects of Amsterdam and dropped us off and made us sketch pictures of the buildings. People in those neighborhoods aren’t skipping around in their wooden shoes with bouquets of tulips. I tell everyone the same thing about Amsterdam: It’s like adult fun land, and has all sorts of “bad” things, but you could also take your grandmother on a really nice walk through the city. And that’s all I’m going to say about that on the internet.
9. Monaco — Yes it’s a country. Doug and I sat on the steps of the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo the day before the Grand Prix and just counted Ferraris. In an hour, I think we saw like 40 or something. I have never seen a higher concentration of nice cars in my life. I almost barfed on the bus back to France, I remember that vividly.
10. Luxembourg — Also a real country and the grandest Duchy of them all. I was there for about 3 months when I was studying abroad. I lived in a section of the city called Howald with Claude and Ching. The national beer of Luxembourg is Bofferding, it’s not really exported, but it’s like Budweiser. I remember my last night in Luxembourg I got drunk and stole some frozen sausages out of a case in the bar and ran home to my friends house. On the way I rolled and nearly broke my ankle. Needless to say, the hangover the next morning was almost as painful as waking up with one cankle and the realization that I fell asleep on a velvet couch with a bunch of frozen Luxembourgish sausage.
11. Spain — Who knew that they killed the bulls at the end of the Bull fight?? Well, now I do. Gruver took us to a fight in Valencia and we literally walked in as they were stabbing the thing in the back of the neck with a giant sword. We went on rookie night, which usually results in some human goring, but no luck for us. I was hoping for something more gladitorial. After the fight, they drag the bulls out to a shed and string them up and hack off the spine with an ax, butcher the whole thing in like 5 minutes and send the meat to the restaurants for the night, pretty cool to watch, yeah vegetarians, I said it. We also got to see the second to last race of the America’s Cup and go to the team banquet on the roof of the Prada compound, thanks to Gruver, where Mr. Bertelli (Prada’s husband/business partner) cooked steaks for us that he had flown in from Italy. When I die, I believe this is probably the richest person thing I will have ever done.
12. Italy — This place can almost be talked about as all separate countries. Been to Rome twice, Florence, Chianti area and Pompeii. For all you fellow history nerds, Rome should be like Mecca for you, make one pilgrimage in your lifetime. There is so much cool stuff to talk about here, but in the end, I would be perfectly happy if someone hooked me up to an IV of Italian food and sat me in front of the Pantheon for 5 days.
13. The Vatican — Technically a country, so I am counting it. Still no sighting of the Pope mobile, despite 2 trips. I’m so holy. The first time, we waited in line for the Sistine chapel for like 4 hours, put that in the record book God. It’s one of those things you have to see, but the whole experience was so unholy, you are literally herded into a room like cattle and told “no photo!” but everyone who has been there has the blurry picture of Adam and God that they show to their friends and try to explain what the blobs of color are — guilty.
14. Germany — Loved Munich, loved Trier, did not love Berlin. Now this is probably just my preference, but Berlin is weird, and ugly. I’m willing to give it another chance, but the first impression was not great. If you are going to Germany, go to Munich, go on a bike tour, get drunk, bike through the nudist park and jump in the river like I did. Also, go to Neuchwanstein Castle. It’s what Disney modeled the Magic Kingdom after and some crazy German king built the thing in the Bavarian Alps right next to his other castle, which is yellow.
15. Czech Republic — I hate when everyone says, Prague is SOOO cheap. What they meant to say is “beer is cheap, but since everyone says Prague is cheap, I am going to say it too”. Prague is not cheap, it’s on par with what stuff costs in the US, if not more expensive, at least when I was there. Doug and I went to Prague with Marks for Spring Break 2k7. We drank real Absinthe in the completely wrong way. If you go to the club here, note that people don’t show up until 3AM, unless you’re American, then you show up at 11 when the place is just an empty cavern of Euro-beat, play Foosball, get tired and go home at 1.
16. Austria — Didn’t spend a whole lot of time here, but would like to go back and check it out for longer. The Schoenbrun palace is pretty cool and I went to a concert in one of the same places where some of the musical geniuses of the 18th and 19th century played. Vienna was also the site of my first ever Big Mac. Everything was closed when we got there except for le Macdo and I hadn’t eaten all day so I went for it, and that was the first and last one I ever had.
17. Costa Rica — I went here courtesy of Carearbuilder in 2010. So beautiful and we didn’t even go on the tropical side. Rincon is a cool place to hike, lots of mudpots and hot springs. We hired some guy and his buddy to drive us to the park in their van and then take us to a traditional Costa Rican restaurant in Liberia. There also happened to be the annual pony show or something in town that day so there were ponies everywhere. Yee haw. I ordered something with the spine still attached, and can you believe it? I got sick.
18. United Arab Emirates — After going here, it puts real perspective on how ignorant Americans really are. Not like I am some bastion of smartness, but Dubai and the UAE was, hands down, the cleanest, safest place I have EVER been. I am more scared at a Chicago bus stop than I ever was here. Granted, the UAE is way different from the rest of the middle east, but I will talk your ear off about how awesome this place is. We went to the Arabian desert outside Liwa in the evening one day. There were no other people or buildings as far as the eye could see. Except, I found a guy, Mohammed, with a sweet dune buggy. He spoke 0 English, but I understood his hand motion of “get in my dune buggy”, so I did. Risky? Eh. Turned out not to be. He drove me and my friends all up and down the sand dunes, brought us to the top of one and made us tea over a little fire while we watched the sunset in the complete absence of any other people. We randomly saw him at the gas station the next day in his white robes and headscarf. Is that Mohammed???
19. Oman — The joke about the Sultan of Oman is that he loves fast cars and young boys. And I can’t speak for his boy love, but the roads in Oman are immaculate. Everything is lit, and perfectly paved, even in the middle of nowhere. There is a coastal drive along the Arabian sea that is absolutely terrifying and gorgeous. I went to the Mussandam region and took a dhow (boat) through the fjords near the Strait of Hormuz. There are no people here, except for fishing villages (only accessible by boat) and just rocks and beautiful water with dolphins and fish and Iranian smugglers, they waved at us. The crew on our boat caught a fish and cooked it for us for lunch. I even tried some.
20. Mexico — My first wake up call in Mexico was by the border patrol on the bank of the Rio Grande. Apparently there were some Mexicans that crossed over the border in the night right through our camp. Mexico trip numero uno was not the typical Mexican Spring break. Instead of getting wasted on a beach in Cabo (I saved that for after college), I canoed down the Rio Grande for 90 something miles with Jess; she capsized every day, had to say it. It’s literally a river of liquid mud. My 2 other Mexico trips were via the CB presidents club trip, and they were amazing but I’m not writing those stories here, partly because I don’t remember them, partly because I would like to be employed in the future.
21. Cameroon — What can I say about this place…I really should just write a whole long blog about it because there are so many hilarious stories. First of all, I’ll save you the time of looking for it on a map. It’s right at the “armpit of Africa”, that joint where west Africa turns South. I spent a total of about 2 months here on 2 separate trips because my sister was volunteering in the Peace Corps in a village with no running water, cell phone service, or electricity. After 2.5 years of living there, all of those things arrived within about 2 months of her departure. I have never experienced heat induced lethargy like I did in Cameroon. There are 0 tourists here and no infrastructure to support them even if there were, so everything I did was as local as it gets including eating spoiled meat, attending festivals and using a hole for a toilet. This is also the first place that I have ever been where people just straight out yelled “nasara!” or “white!” or “la blanche”, which means what you think it means. I’ve never been so aware of my skin color.
While 95% of my experiences here were amazing and wonderful (including teaching 100 students at the high school, eating many home cooked meals, having the best chicken I have ever eaten, seeing what’s left of the wildlife and experiencing truly welcoming hospitality), I can also say that I spent the worst night of my life here. Gaston “forgot” to buy our train tickets to get down to the capital for my return flight, so we had to take an overnight bus/van which even the Cameroonians warn against because of the bandits. Bandits are basically guys who roam the bush and rob and kill people. No other options, so we had to do it. The van was completely overloaded and had about 6 feet of luggage stacked on the top of it, and a goat for a little while. This was the first of only two times in my travels that I thought I was going to die, like hands together praying to God thought I was going to die. We took a road through the jungle along the border of the Central African Republic which is currently in the midst of a war. It was raining, the red soil road wasn’t paved and there were 10 foot deep ditches on either side of it . Semi-trucks were jackknifed all along the road from what we could see out the front window because the red soil has completely covered the sides. The driver was basically skiing the van down the hills of mud. We made it somehow, but I haven’t even gotten to describing the night. For 17 hours straight, there was a Christian preacher in the row behind us who wouldn’t shut up. Not only that, but he felt the need to tap us on the shoulder every 8-10 minutes to try to get us to talk to him. When night fell, the border police stopped the van every 40 minutes or so to check for bandits. HUGE guys dressed in all black with guns that I have only seen in Terminator movies and in the boys section of Toys ‘R Us got on, demanded our passports and looked at them upside down because they can’t read. We just hoped that they wouldn’t pull us out of the van. Like we were the ones they should be worried about… All the while, the preacher, talking, talking, talking, tapping, tapping, tapping. Finally at about 2 in the morning, I couldn’t take it anymore, I turned around and politely asked him to be quiet. Ahhh 15 minutes of sweet, sweet silence (except for the loud Cameroonian music that had been blaring through the broken speakers for the entire trip) until the border police stopped us again and the talking started. On top of everything, we had a seat on top of the wheel well so I was basically sitting in a ball for half the trip. Meg and I switched on and off to prevent the full plunge into insanity. When we arrived in Yaounde, I can’t even describe the feeling of elation to be out of that van.
One of many stories I hope to write about Cameroon in the future…
22. Greece — My first trip to Greece was during their huge protests and near government collapse. Abby was working there for a few months so I made up an excuse at work and booked my flight for a long weekend 3 days before I left. This trip seemed to spark my late quarter life crisis at 27 because I went back for 2 short trips within 6 months of the first one. Ah, disposable income from sales and a complete lack of financial responsibility, I miss those days. It’s probably good that I experienced Mykonos at this point in my life because if I did this party scene any later in life, I would feel a bit ridiculous. I’ll never forget Greece and neither will the 6 inch section of skin on the inside of my right calf from burning it on the tailpipe of a motorcycle.
23. Belize — I can’t believe more Americans haven’t been here. I’m not complaining, just surprised. It’s closer than a lot of Caribbean destinations and way cooler. We stayed at a jungle hotel run by a former jaguar hunter from Texas. The bungalows were all lit with gas lamps and had thatch roofs, no electricity and so peaceful. I tried bread fruit for the first time and rode a horse at a terrifying gallop through the jungle and didn’t fall off and paralyze myself.
24. Guatemala — I wasn’t here for very long because I just went for a day trip from Belize. I wanted to see Tikal, which is an ancient Mayan city that is still largely buried under the jungle. It’s also the site where they filmed some Star Wars scene, but even I am not nerdy enough to know which one.
25. Singapore — This was my introduction to Asia, which hardly counts because Singapore is so nice. Allison was living here and she put me up for a few days before I officially moved to Thailand. The botanical gardens are beautiful as are the giant terrarium gardens of the future. The first night there, after I had flown for 20 something hours straight, we were out until sunrise. My body clock was smashed into a million pieces.
26. Thailand — I’ve now been living here for almost 3 years. Can’t. Get. Out. Hmmm, if I could tell just one story from Thailand, what would it be… Maybe that I lived through a military coup and subsequent military dictatorship and it hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as it sounds.
27. Laos – I spent a couple days in Vientiane shortly after I moved to Thailand to get my visa. To get a Thai non-immigrant visa, you have to leave Thailand and go to an embassy then come back in. Efficiency in it’s purest form. This place was boring as F. I also got molested by a “monk” at the big golden temple, and had to punch him in the neck to get him off of me, so be careful ladies. But, they have good bread. Heyyy, criticism sandwich.
28. Cambodia — John, Meg and I had a romantic 36 hour trip to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat. I was awake for about 32 hours, Meg for 33 and John was the winner with 35:40. Meg and John get bonus points for a night of heavy drinking included. I get a bonus point for not clawing their faces off when they came home and aggressively spooned me at 4AM, 1 hour before we had to meet our guide, Robin Hood, to take us around the temples.
29. Sri Lanka — This was an unexpectedly awesome trip. I only ended up here because I had a week off and I planned to go to the Maldives, but I was/am too poor to spend a week there and the cheap flights all transferred through Colombo. I saw lots of wild elephants, ate delicious food and almost murdered someone at the airport when they told me that the flight was full and they had to put me on another one the next day (which screwed up all my plans).
30. The Maldives — For my 30th country, I wanted to celebrate somewhere really awesome. The Maldives are so indescribably beautiful, probably because there aren’t any humans there. I stayed at a resort with a bunch of honeymooners. I told the reception that I am a travel writer and got upgraded to a huge room. Ka-ching. Again, since I am poor and couldn’t afford their meals (which started at $40 each), I had a good food strategy: eat for free at the breakfast buffet until I was shallow breathing, survive on that for the day and then have a Cliff Bar, buy a cocktail and gorge on bowls and bowls of free banana chips provided at happy hour. When I paid my bill at the end, they couldn’t figure out why I only had 4 cocktails on there and nothing else. I beat the system.
31. Vietnam — I think I need to give Vietnam another shot. I enjoyed my trip, especially the historical stuff, and I got an awesome free tour from a university student who wanted to practice his English, but I would say it falls on the lower end of my favorite places. Like this summary of my trip, Vietnam was eh.
32. Myanmar — It might almost be too late to go here and have a truly amazing experience because tourists, like myself, have been flooding in at a break-neck pace since they opened the country a few years ago. Even when I went a year and a half ago, it was starting to get obnoxious. As I mentioned in the Cameroon summary, I have only thought I was going to die (while travelling) twice in my life. Taking a flight from Air Kanbawza from Bagan to Inle Lake on a re-purposed Soviet era airplane is number two. I should have known from the minute I got to the airport and there was no electricity that this was going to literally be death defying. Or maybe I should have just assumed that since the airline is named after the villain from Super Mario, it was not going to be a smooth ride. I prayed to every God I could think of that that airplane would land in fewer than 4 pieces.
33. Malaysia — Don’t go for the cities, go for the wildlife. Borneo was amazing, although depressing because the earth has been raped to make palm oil. The flora and fauna that remain is worth the trip around the world to see. Or for those living in Asia, a $60 flight. See the Orangutans, soon.
34. Indonesia — I’ve now been 3 times (longer blog post in progress) and I love it. I’ve been to 3 of the major islands, Java, Bali and Lombok and they are all awesome in their own way. I’m obsessed with Bali though, like been 3 times to the same place obsessed. The beaches in Bali aren’t great, but in the center of the island, it’s magical. Green moss growing everywhere, monkeys, organic food, yoga. The islands off Lombok have beautiful beaches and I’ve seen a bunch of turtles when I go snorkeling just off the beach. The temples near Yogjakarta on Java are impressive, and thank god for Lukki when I was there. He made that trip worthwhile. The funniest thing about Indonesia for me is that everyone wants to take a picture with me. At first it’s kinda cute, but after hoards of people started coming up to me wanting photos with every peace sign, head tilt, winking and tongue sticking out combination possible, and then the big fat guy kisses me on the cheek, I know that you could not pay me enough money to be famous. Maybe I won’t be writing that book….
35. India — I had a brief trip to India to visit Meg when she was working in Mumbai last year. Surprisingly, there were no major snafus to speak of and technically I didn’t get sick. It did rain for almost 24 hours a day for 6 days straight but besides that, I think it was just India as normal, which is intense as fck. I have spent a lot of time in the developing world now, so there’s not a lot that can really shock me, but the slums… WOW. The living conditions are as bad as you read about and see photos of, I can’t even describe them. And the most difficult part is that not 1 mile away, people are living disgustingly lavish lifestyles with no care for the people who are literally living on top of a medical waste dump and being raped when they get up in the night to use the public bathroom. That disparity was really hard to rationalize. The men have something that Meg termed “the cold dead stare” or CDS for short. In public, the male/female ratio is about 10:1. And the men just sit and stare with an unflinching, soul piercing intensity. Even if you stare right back at them, they do not stop. This coupled with the gross overpopulation was maddening. So maddening that one day I just locked myself in my sister’s room. I wasn’t sick, the intensity of it all just made me feel like my brain was melting out of my head. I just could not go out there. I’ll go back though.
36. Australia — I actually just got back from here about a month ago. I went to Perth to visit a friend who gave me the most amazing tour which totally made the trip worthwhile. The weather was beautiful, the food and wine were amazing and the people were super cool, although as an American, we’re conditioned to believe Australians are cool, so maybe it was like a self fulfilling prophecy. And the men are hot. I ate everything in my path: beef, wine, cheese, honey, nuts but the most exciting thing was a pear. Just a regular pear. When you have lived in Asia for nearly 3 years, a ripe green pear is the most delicious thing you have ever tasted. I also got scratched by a wild kangaroo trying to steal my peanuts in a park.
36.5 Nigeria — I’m almost counting this because while in Cameroon, we hiked into Nigeria twice and being so close to the border, had a lot of interactions with Nigerians, ate their delicious cake bread, listened to them speak Hausa and saw the effects of the crazy street drugs they sell. Upon our second entrance to Nigeria via a goat path in Rhumsiki (the photo on the header of the blog that looks like the moon), a young boy greeted us with a knife that he had lashed to a stick and yelled all sorts of things at us until we passed back across the border. Welcome to Nigeria.
Next up… Japan? Korea? Philippines? New Zealand? China?…..