Now that we’re home and starting to get back into “normal” life, I’m not quite sure what’s up next for us. We’ll be staying in Madison, but we’re definitely not done with travelling. (I don’t think we’ll be doing any more year-long trips, though!) Hopefully we’ll get some good diving in and we still want to see Antarctica, South America, and Africa. Plus there are tons of places in America and Canada that we’re hoping to visit as well.
As far as the blog goes, we’re going to keep the site up for photos, but we won’t be writing posts about our boring, everyday lives. If we go somewhere new, I may write about it, so feel free to unsubscribe if you don’t want to read about our random trips. But besides that, this is the end of the road.
Thank you so much to everyone who has followed along and put up with our emails this whole time. We’ve come a long way from the days when we were learning how to use chopsticks and squat toilets. Hopefully our updates and pictures were interesting, or at least a good distraction during your work day! Best wishes to you all and take care.
Nikki and Brad
If you’ve taken anything away from our blog, I hope it was that anyone can go vagabonding. I’m not going to say you have to go backpacking for a year, because that is definitely not for everyone. Some people are unhappy when they’re away from their loved ones and home comforts. And that’s fine. But if you’re at all interested in independent travel, don’t keep putting it off. Start saving up money now. Start doing research now. Here are some of the sources we used for inspiration and information during our trip planning:
- Travel Independent. The most comprehensive and user-friendly resource for future backpackers.
- Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. Amazing book about the vagabonding lifestyle. Absolutely required reading!
- BootsnAll. Useful travel articles and forums.
- Thorn Tree. Best and most popular travel forum on the web. Whatever your question is, you’ll find the answer here.
- Everything Everywhere. Gary Arndt (who also happens to be from Wisconsin) sold his house in 2007 and has been traveling around the world since. I’ve spent many hours reading his blog posts and looking at his pictures.
- CouchSurfing. Social network for travelers or anyone interested in hosting/meeting them.
- Airbnb. Rent rooms or entire apartments from locals.
Just don’t make excuses. You don’t have to be young, single, and rich (although that would make it much easier). We’ve met fellow travelers of all ages, races, nationalities, and backgrounds, from families with children to fearless elderly people. And don’t think you have to go somewhere exotic to have an adventure. Remember we have amazing national parks and regions to visit right here in America.
If you do decide to go backpacking, don’t worry too much about the details. It’s easy to spend hours agonizing over your packing list, but as long as you start with your essentials (passport, debit card, cash, medications, sturdy shoes, and non-cotton clothing), you’ll be fine. You’re not going to the moon. There will be stores selling whatever you’ll need. (It might take you all day to find them, but they’ll be there.)
Know that you may have more bad experiences than good ones, but those bad experiences will make you a stronger and more interesting person. You’ll probably meet some amazing people and some obnoxious people. You may often feel confused or conflicted, and that’s okay. The whole point is to shake up your worldview. Be prepared and make an itinerary, but don’t feel like you have to follow it. Listen to your instincts and be on your guard, but don’t think everyone is out to get you.
And, of course, have fun!
For those of us who have spent most of our lives here, America doesn’t seem like an odd place. You often hear people making jokes like, “We don’t have a culture.” We’ve been gone for thirteen months, which really isn’t all that long, but it was apparently long enough for us to get used to other cultures and ways of life. Now everyday things around here keep surprising me.
Everything in America is huge. The houses, the yards, the cars, the televisions, the roads, the portions, the people. Really, everything seems comically over-sized to me, like I’ve somehow wandered onto Big Island in Super Mario Brothers 3. The urban sprawl around here is also pretty ridiculous. I can’t believe the amount of time Americans spend in their cars. Parking lots take up acres of space. It seems like nobody walks anywhere, which is pretty alarming to me, especially since walking became our main mode of transportation during our trip.
Related to that is the lack of public transportation options. I never thought about this before, but one important benefit of public transportation is that it forces people to walk. Say you live five minutes from your train stop and your work is also five minutes from the train. You would have to walk twenty minutes a day just to get to and from work. I’m not quite sure why the transit options here are so limited. It’s kind of a vicious cycle, with nobody wanting to take the bus because it’s not very efficient, and the city not wanting to put more money into the system because nobody uses it. I think the bus system in Madison is more complicated than almost all of the bus/train systems we encountered while we were traveling. (The notable exception is the Tokyo subway system–that was such a mess.)
Other things around here are strange, too. The money is all green. Prices don’t include taxes or tips, and the guidelines for tipping are pretty confusing. Gigantic cups of soda are cheap and often have free refills. There are strict rules about alcohol, like when you can sell it, whom you can sell it to, and where you can drink it. Hardly anyone smokes. The waiter brings you the bill before you ask for it, which now seems incredibly rude, like you’re being shooed out the door. On the other hand, servers and cashiers are all expected to be nice to you. They can even lose their job if they’re not nice to you, but it all seems so artificial. Sure, nobody likes the snobby waiters in Paris, but do you really need a big fake smile and a conversation about the weather while you’re buying your groceries?
Door knobs here are round and impossible to open if your hands are full. The toilets have way too much water in them. Prescription drugs are not only advertised, but aggressively marketed to their target audiences. Some foods are eaten with a fork and some are eaten with your hands, and with some food, like chicken or potatoes, it depends on how it’s prepared. (Baked chicken is eaten with a fork, but fried chicken is eaten with your hands.) Garbage disposals are both strange and convenient. Kids in high school can drive and many of them have their own cars. Driving is very neat and orderly and everyone follows the rules. Soccer is almost never on TV (thankfully). Americans tend to be very religious and assume that you are as well. Children are very spoiled and their parents talk to them instead of punish them. “Now Timmy, it hurts Grandma and makes her feel bad when you kick her in the leg, so please don’t do that. Do you think that sounds fair?”
The incredible wealth and waste here is hard to believe. I think the constant talk about the terrible economy is kind of funny, because everyone here seems to have tons of material possessions and I still haven’t seen anyone digging in dumpsters for dinner. Water, energy, and food is wasted in huge amounts here all the time. To name just one example, in many other countries, it’s normal to turn the shower off while you’re lathering up your shampoo or soap. In America, that seems like a ridiculous practice.
This whole phenomenon of feeling out of place in your own country is known as Reverse Culture Shock. Sometimes it’s fun to see the differences because it feels like we’re traveling in a foreign country again. The problem is that the place we’ve been homesick for, and looking forward to returning to, feels completely different. I think that’s harder to deal with because, obviously, America hasn’t changed. We have. As Thomas Wolfe noted over 70 years ago, you can’t go home again. Once you leave, “home” as you remember it will never exist again. I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. I’m sure once we settle into a routine and get back to work, life will seem more normal, but I don’t know if things will ever be the same. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. After all, challenging yourself and getting to know your home culture is an important part of travel. It just means we might be consistently confused and amazed by this country for the next few months.
Top ten experiences?
- Going out for sushi and a jazz/funk concert in Tokyo with Yoshiko and other couchsurfers.
- The Gracia festival in Barcelona with Jordi and Tanit.
- Celebrating New Year’s Eve on the beach in Ko Lipe, Thailand.
- Hiking in the Swiss Alps.
- Hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, China.
- Driving and hiking in the Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand.
- Hanging out with friends and family in the beautiful Cinque Terre, Italy.
- Seeing the Great Wall of China.
- Scuba diving in the Andaman Sea.
- Oktoberfest in Munich.
- Diving in the Andaman Sea, Thailand
- Hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
- Walking the Great Wall of China
- Seeing the Gobi Desert, Mongolia
- Climbing on ancient Angkor Wat temple ruins, Cambodia
- Hiking in the Swiss Alps
- Hanging out with friends and family in Cinque Terre, Italy
- The Gracia festival parade where devils shot fireworks at people in Barcelona, Spain
- Eating sushi and seeing jazz in Tokyo, Japan
- Watching a baseball game in the cheering section in South Korea
Bottom ten experiences?
- The infamous cat bite in Gili Trawangan and its aftermath.
- Getting sick in Sengiggi, Indonesia.
- Getting an ear infection in Thailand.
- Getting sick in Kep, Cambodia.
- Getting sick on the plane ride from Hong Kong to Seoul.
- Being stuck in Ulaanbaatar while waiting for our Russian visas.
- Walking around in Phnom Penh.
- Wandering around, trying to find a place to stay in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand.
- Missing friends and family.
- Getting lost all the time (although you do get used to it).
- Nikki’s rabies scare in Indonesia
- The train strike in Italy
- Almost having nowhere to stay in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
- Rainy weather ruining or short stay in Macau and Hong Kong
- United Airlines losing Nikki’s mom’s bag, and our new clothes
- Waiting for our Russian visas in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
- Catching fever in Vietnam
- Commuting on bus between Hangzhou and Lin’an, China
- Getting a Chinese visa in Bangkok, Thailand
- The nasty food and airag in the Mongolian countryside
Top three meals?
- Mama Naxi’s family dinners in Lijiang, China. Steamed rice with bowls and bowls of different stir-fried seafood, meats, and vegetables.
- Sushi in Kanazawa, Japan. I can still remember how fresh and amazing the shrimp and eel was.
- Our dinner at the Good Luck Thai restaurant in Hong Kong with Sid and Rad. Great food and company.
- The claypot place in Yangshuo, China. Between that and the dumpling place, we ate there every night. The claypot was hot, extremely spicy, and delicious.
- Sushi at the place Yoshiko took us in Tokyo, Japan. It may have been on par with other sushi we had in Japan, but I loved it so much because it was my first time eating nigiri rather than maki and it was with great company.
- Portuguese chorizo at Fernando’s in Macau. We ventured to the opposite side of the island on a rainy afternoon because Anthony Bordain went here and loved it, and I’d totally agree this was amazing. Finish it with an original egg tart from Lord Stow’s bakery down the street.
Bottom three meals?
- The “goatsickle” in Mongolia. It was very sweet of our driver to buy them for us, but I wish he hadn’t bothered.
- The chicken in Tai Shan, China.
- Very sour dairy products in Mongolia.
- The infamous “goatsicle” in Mongolia. Sorry Gana, I purposely “accidentally” dropped it on the ground because it was so bad.
- Our awful and expensive dinner atop Tai’shan.
- Our very first meal in Southeast Asia in Kuta, Bali. We wanted to go to an “authentic” place and ended up with very substandard food for Indonesia.
Top five countries?
- New Zealand
- New Zealand
Favorite place we stayed?
Nikki: My favorite places were all when we were guests in people’s homes. Besides that, Traders Hotel in KL was awesome and so was the guesthouse in Amed, Bali when we had our own balcony overlooking the ocean.
Brad: Traders in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Worst place we stayed?
Nikki: The room at the top of Tai Shan, China was pretty bad. I also remember some small and dirty places in Cambodia.
Brad: That dump in Sengiggi, Indonesia. A hot, mosquito-infested, and no running water room was not the best place for Nikki to get really sick.
Nikki: We saw so many weird things, I don’t even know where to start.
Brad: We saw a lot of strange stuff. I’d say it’s a tie between the Capuchin Monastery in Rome and penis park in Samcheok, South Korea.
Most interesting thing?
Nikki: Mongolia interested me the most. The history of the country, the rise and fall of the Khan empire, and the nomadic culture were all really interesting to learn about.
Brad: Mongolia. The fact that people still live a nomadic lifestyle on what might as well be the Moon is amazing. Their customs and way of life was very interesting.
Nikki: Not renting a llama for a hike in Kaikoura, New Zealand. We read about a farm that provided llamas to carry your bags for a day of hiking, but at the time we decided it was too expensive. Now I wish we would have done it, even though it would have been really silly. Also, I wish we would’ve gone to Laos.
Brad: That we didn’t get a motorcycle license before the trip. There were a lot of places in Southeast Asia we wanted to go but couldn’t get to because our travel insurance wouldn’t cover motorbike disasters. And SE Asia’s not a great place to learn how to ride a motorbike.
Top five beaches?
- Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
- Whitehaven Beach, Australia
- Cathedral Cove, New Zealand
- Ko Lipe, Thailand
- Ko Mook, Thailand
- Whitehaven Beach, Australia
- Gili Trawangan, Indonesia
- Rabbit Island, Cambodia
- Byron Bay, Australia
- Ko Lipe, Thailand
Top five cities?
- Hong Kong
- Tokyo, Japan
- Barcelona, Spain
- Sydney, Australia
- Hong Kong
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
Nikki: The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It was depressing, of course, but also very well-done and informative. I think I learned more there than I did in all the other museums put together. I wish everyone could spend an afternoon there.
Brad: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Very powerful, sad, and informative.
Most helpful thing we packed?
Nikki: Probably my headlamp. We had lots of late nights or early mornings when we needed to pack or unpack our bags in the dark without waking up the whole dorm. Plus, some of the places we went didn’t have street lights, so a flashlight was pretty essential at night.
Brad: My camera. Many other travel blogs say not to bring such a big camera, but I wouldn’t have gotten the shots I did with a point-and-shoot. It was bulky, but I’m really glad I brought it along.
Thing we wished we had packed?
Nikki: I really wish we would have taken a pair of travel speakers. We thought about it, but decided they would take up too much room and that we wouldn’t use them enough to be worth it. It turned out there were many, many times when one of us said, “Too bad we can’t listen to some music now.” They definitely would have been worth the space they would have taken up.
Brad: An unlocked cell phone. I had my iPhone, but it was locked to AT&T and the power button was broken, so it was only useful when connected to WiFi. There were many times we needed to call hostel, hosts, and businesses and we couldn’t.
How does your view of the world now compare to how you saw the world before you started?
Nikki: The world is somehow both more complicated and more simple than I realized. On the one hand, there are all of these other cultures that are so unique and confusing to outsiders, but at the same time people all over the world enjoy pretty much the same things: spending time with loved ones, eating good meals, playing games, enjoying nature and beauty. I don’t understand how everyone can be so alike and yet so different.
Brad: The world is much larger than I ever thought. We traveled for a year and barely scratched the surface on what there is to see. It’s also a lot safer than I imagined.
What did you miss the most while on the road?
Nikki: Pizza. (And maybe my family.)
Brad: Family of course. While in Asia, I missed good western food.
From the places we visited, where would you most want to live for a year?
Nikki: I know I was only there for 14 hours, but I would seriously consider Dublin. Of the places I’ve seen a little bit more of, I think Barcelona or Tokyo would be at the top of my list.
Tips for other world travelers?
Nikki: Don’t be afraid! Just go have an adventure!
- Get an unlocked smartphone and buy cheap prepaid SIM cards in the countries you visit. Even if you don’t have a data plan, with a smartphone you can download maps and travel articles of where you are when you have WiFi. Skype is a great, cheap way to call home.
- Pack light. The longer you travel, the less you need, because you’ll be doing laundry and running out of shampoo pretty soon anyways.
- Learn Hello and Thank You in the local languages. For 80% of travel, that’s all you’ll really need. Pantomime and picture menus go a long way, and English really is the universal language of travel.
- Get a motorcycle license before going to Southeast Asia. Motorbike, though dangerous, is the best way of getting to the beautiful countryside. In many countries, it’s illegal to drive one without a motorcycle license, which isn’t a problem with cops, but is for travel insurance.
- Countries we visited: 26
- Continents visited: 3
- Days on the road: 399
- Distance traveled: 45,534 miles (1.8 times the circumference of Earth)
- Distance traveled by airplane: 23,100 miles
- Distance traveled over land/water: 22,434 miles
- Hours traveling over land/water: 844 (35 days)
- Hours in the air: 50
- UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 53
- Places we stayed: 167
- City we stayed in the longest: Bangkok (11 days)
- Time zone changes: 19
- Currencies used: 19
- Olympic host cities we visited: 12
- Nights we stayed in:
- Hostel dorm rooms: 103 (26%)
- Hostel private rooms: 76 (19%)
- Hotel rooms: 74 (19%)
- Guesthouses: 58 (15%)
- CouchSurfing: 7 (2%)
- Airbnb: 23 (6%)
- Tents, park huts, or gers: 23 (6%)
- On a boat: 8 (2%)
- On a train: 11 (3%)
- On a bus: 4 (1%)
- On a plane: 2 (1%)
- In a home: 6 (2%)
- Blog Posts: 113
- Comments: 201
- Words: 75,010 (664 words per post)
- Google Analytics stats:
- Page views: 14,564
- Visits: 6,747
- Unique visitors: 2,156
- Flights taken: 14
- Distance Brad drove: 4,032 miles
- Countries that drive on the left: 10; on the right: 16
- Overnight trains, planes, buses, and ferries: 21
- Cities we used subway systems in: 24
- Way we entered the countries: by air: 8; by water: 4; by land: 15
- Scuba Diving
- Dives completed: 27
- Total underwater time: 19 hours 55 minutes
- Maximum depth: 97 feet
- Caches found: 85
- Countries we found caches in: 22
- Movies we saw in theatres: 3
- Sports games we went to: 3 (Rugby in New Zealand, Baseball in S. Korea and Japan)
- Books Brad read on the trip: 54, for 20,615 pages (list)
- Photos taken: 18,572
- Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 4,372, 24% of all photos taken
Cost per category:
- Transportation: 31.1%
- Lodging: 21.5%
- Food, non-alcoholic drink: 14.8%
- Activities and admission fees: 8.6%
- Gear and pre-trip expenses: 6.7%
- Scuba diving: 5.3%
- Alcohol: 4.2%
- Visas: 2%
- Internet access and this website: 1.2%
- Miscellaneous (toiletries, laundry, haircuts, souvenirs, etc.): 4.6%
Most Expensive Countries:
- Australia *
- Japan 
- Netherlands 
- New Zealand 
- Germany 
Least Expensive Countries:
- Malaysia *
- Czech Republic 
- Indonesia 
- Vietnam 
- Cambodia 
* Indicates the number of weeks we could have stayed in only that country on our original budget if we hadn’t traveled anywhere else.