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Published: January 31st 2009
We're heading home tomorrow, 664 days after we left the UK.
We spent one year teaching English in Korea and a further nine months travelling through 15 countries on three continents.
Our route took us from England - Thailand - Hong Kong - South Korea - Japan - South Korea - China - Vietnam - Laos - Thailand - Peninsula Malaysia and Sabah - Thailand - New Zealand - Chile - Peru - Bolivia - Brazil - Argentina - Paraguay - Argentina - Uruguay - Argentina - England
Nothing was planned further than South Korea and we bought tickets as we went along, travelling mainly by bus, train and boat, only taking flights between continents (hence all the backtracking between countries). We had no end date - just a plan to travel as long as the money and the energy lasted. Our decision to head home was a combination of the two, travelling for such a long time is pretty hard on both the bank balance and the energy reserves.
I'm excited to be going back. I'm excited about seeing family and friends (the ones that still remember me!). I'm excited about the food, about re-visiting favourite
places and reminiscing, about a pint in a pub, not having to pack and pick up my backpack every few days, having my own bed, communicating with ease, and so much more... but the excitement is dimmed by the prediction that the coldest winter in 13 years is meant to kick in the day we get back, then there's the small matter of the recession and job hunting. Back to earth with a resounding crash.
Hopefully the 'skills' I’ve learnt whilst travelling will see me right...
... how to say 'hello' and 'thank you' in eight languages, the art of mime in China, the basics in Korean, how to count, barter and make random (probably inappropriate) comments in Lao and Thai, and how to have a reasonable conversation in Spanish.
... how to survive in the heaving, surging, shoving mass of people in a 'queue' in countries where queuing is yet to be invented.
... how to eat with Korean chopsticks - they're stainless steel (slippery) and rectangular so you need to line them up perfectly. If you can eat with Korean chopsticks you will go far in the chopstick world.
... how to cope in countries where the service slogan isn't so much 'the customer is always right'
but more 'it is perfectly acceptable to shout at or run away from the customer if you don't feel like dealing with them or like what they're saying'
... how to enter a state of meditative tranquility while sitting on a bus for 20 hours and not bat an eyelid when you find out the guidebook was wrong and it's actually going to be 27.
... never to get in the way of an Ajumma (Korean woman of advanced years) and you should probably avoid annoying a Cholita (indigenous Andean woman of advanced years). They're hard as nails and skilled at using everyday objects as weapons (shopping bags, walking sticks, umbrellas). Imagine Ajumma vs. Cholita. I would put my money on the Ajumma; decked out in a tracksuit and a sun-visor they are dressed for a fight, the Cholita on the other hand has the disadvantage of a cumbersome full-length skirt which appears to weigh almost as much as the Cholita herself (perhaps a full-body-slam?).
... never to get a map out in Korea to avoid the risk of
being crushed to death by the rush of people wanting to help.
... that in any country people will go out of their way to help you when you need it most.
... not to dwell on what it is exactly that I'm eating and to never order chicken in China because that's exactly what you'll get...head, feet, beak and all.
I wonder what skills I may have lost? Perhaps I will be incapable of operating everyday appliances, a washing machine or hairdryer, for example. Maybe I will drive with my hand on the horn, swerving and swearing, as is de rigueur in 90% of the world. Maybe I will think it's acceptable to ply complete strangers with personal questions while waiting for a bus (having lost the non-travellers’ skill of 'minding your own bloody business'). Or maybe I will insist on locking my valuables away at night, wearing a money belt and carrying a 'mugging wallet'.
Having mentioned safety, I feel the need to have a small rant. Some people would say that we're lucky to be finishing our trip with all our possessions and limbs intact (especially after travelling through South
America). I'd say luck plays a reasonably small part in us not having had anything stolen. Of the travellers we met who'd had things stolen most freely admitted that they could have avoided it; that is to say, they were opportunistic thefts. For example, the guy who left his bag (with camera inside) on the bus when he went to clear immigration at a border crossing, the girl who walked through a dodgy area of Buenos Aires with her bag on one shoulder and 200 USD in cash inside, or the girl who took her purse containing all her cards and ID to a club and was staggering around drunk. These are pretty extreme examples, but there are plenty of other more everyday ones: 'bag on one shoulder,' 'bag next to chair at outdoor cafe,' 'camera in hand with no strap,' 'wallet out while in the street'. The majority of the thefts are opportunistic and it's the travellers who are providing the opportunities. I'm sure plenty of people have had things stolen and they were as careful as they could reasonably be expected to be, it just seems that more often than not people are not
as careful as they
could reasonably be expected to be and the dangers of travelling in South America get exaggerated. In countries where opportunities of any kind are very few, where poor people are poor
, where tourists come with their wealth on show and provide an 'opportunity', thefts are inevitable and I don't think the word 'victim' can be applied to the 'robee' in the fullest sense of the word. I would never steal or condone stealing but that is a moral I am privileged not to have to work very hard to keep.
Now having my limbs intact is an altogether different matter. That I would attribute almost entirely to luck. Whilst doing the chicken-run across six lanes of swerving motorcycles in Vietnam, having a nervous bus driver complete a nine-point turn on the edge of a ravine in Peru or careering around a cliff face in China with a driver who seems to think he's playing a computer game (the examples are endless)... I think luck, fate, some kind of travel god and an occasional well-placed barrier are taking care of matters and all you can do is 'hope for the best'.
But what fun would travelling be
if you could control everything? It's necessary to have your travels and (I'm getting deep now) your life influenced and changed by situations and people. Travelling provides the opportunity for the number and variety of situations and people to be multiplied and intensified. No wonder it's so exhausting. You are constantly being tested, living outside of your comfort zone and experiencing something new. No wonder it's so addictive.
A few of my favourite things ...
The culture shock of Korea
... and the chance to spend a year getting used to it.
Hanging out in the Zen gardens and peaceful temples of Kyoto, Japan
Being generally confused and baffled but blown away by travelling around China
for two months. Being lead along a crumbling section of the Great Wall by a 70-year-old local villager. Laughing at the antics of the pandas in Chengdu. Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Having pretty dresses made in even prettier Hoi Ann. Cruising around the countryside on the back of a moto-taxi, Vietnam
Swinging in hammocks and drinking Beer Lao
down by the Mekong. Receiving big smiles and enthusiastic 'Sabaai-dii's
everywhere we went. Hanging out with the kids and
crazy Mama Pap of Tat Lo, Laos
Partying bucket style with Chris and Lou in Thailand
, sleeping in beach huts and dining on seafood.
Snorkelling, swimming and chilling with Becky and Mike on beautiful Mira Beach, the Perhentians. Meeting men of the forest in Borneo. Scuba diving with the turtles and sharks in Sipidan, Malaysia
Jumping out of a plane, New Zealand
Sandboarding and horseriding in the beautiful, bizarre landscape of the Atacama desert, Chile
Learning Spanish in beautiful Cusco. Hiking in Colca Canyon, Peru
The stunning salt plains and salt lakes of Uyuni. Galloping on Rosa the Rocket through Butch and Sundance country, Bolivia
The sheer jaw-dropping natural power and beauty of Iguazu Falls, Argentina & Brazil
Fishing for piranhas and sleeping in a hammock in the Pantanal, Brazil
The jagged beauty of the Perito Moreno Glacier. Watching the penguins waddle in Puerto Madryn. Drinking copious amounts of red wine in classy Buenos Aires, Argentina
Fiesta time in picturesque Colonia, Uruguay
... all fantastic memories and hopefully it won't be too long before the next big adventure.
Thanks for reading the blog and thanks for
the comments (and recommendations from fellow travelbloggers). I really appreciate it and it has made writing this blog a lot more enjoyable!
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