What was your favorite place?
Joylani: I cannot succinctly answer this one, so instead I will list the five countries I would most like to spend more time in: China, Indonesia, India, Maldives, Malaysia…or would I pick Thailand? Biking in Finland or Sweden sounds nice too…you see, it is just really hard to answer this question!
Matt: This question and its derivatives are definitely the most asked. I generally tell people I cannot pick just one, but I can list my top five (in no particular order): Turkey, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. I say those five because I liked them, am likely to return sooner rather than later, and are good all-around destinations (food, scenery, activity, nice people, etc.). Japan and Nepal are also up there, but seven is kind of a long favorites list. There’s some places that I really liked, but don’t think I’ll go back to anytime soon, such as Laos or Cambodia. Then there’s some other places that I really liked and I’ll definitely return to, but they’re almost too small to rank, like the Maldives or Singapore. Like Joylani, I cannot definitely answer this question.
Who are the nicest people in the world?
Joylani: Its hard to say, but here are some of my top picks: Korea, China, Malaysia, Japan.
Matt: Hands down, Malaysians and Chinese.
Where was the best food? Worst food?
Joylani: Japan, Korea, China, Malaysia, Thailand. The worst food, without a doubt, was in Bolivia.
Matt: Turkey, South India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan. Bolivia definitely has the worst food around.
What food did you miss?
Joylani: Cereal, raw veggies and unpeeled fruit, clean tap water.
Matt: Mmmm…..cereal…..American beer sometimes, too….
Did you get sick at all?
Joylani: Really? Yes, I did get sick.
Matt: Constantly and consistently for 20 months.
What sort of things did you buy? Souvenirs?
Matt: Aside from clothes, we didn’t buy too much. I’m not too sentimental, plus I knew I’d have to pack and carry any purchases I made. Much to Joylani’s chagrin, I kept some currency from each country we visited. Beyond that, my photos are the only mementos I really have of our trip.
Joylani: Yes! But not a ton of stuff. Most things we purchased on the road were for daily use, like laundry soap and toiletries. Before leaving my concerned little sister asked me in a serious hushed tone, “But can you buy [pause] girl stuff in other places?” Yes, you can, though sometimes tampons are hard to find and I had a stash from home I brought with me. Birth control pills, however, are cheaper and easy to purchase without a prescription in some places abroad, such as Thailand and Argentina. Sometimes we bought clothes when we needed them…and when we didn’t need them—we stocked up on some tailored shirts and things in Vietnam. But what about the fun stuff? Well, we didn’t want to lug around more than we needed, and also didn’t want to deal with the cost and hassle of shipping/customs. Usually we bought souvenir and gift-type items only when we or someone else we knew could bring them home right away. Some of our favorite purchases include: a Turkish tea-set to match Matt’s hookah at home, the obligatory Beer Lao shirts we bought with leftover kip before leaving Laos, and a silver bracelet I bought from an old woman at the horse festival in Shangri-lah. I picked up some beautiful scarves in Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as some cozy alpaca slippers in Peru. Perhaps one of my favorite purchases were two embroidered patches in Northern Vietnam. I wish I had bought more. Another thing I wish we had bought but didn’t because it would have been a hassle to get home was this hand-carved wooden bench with brightly painted dragons and flowers at a booth at the Ladakh festival. It was beautiful.
How did you stay connected on the road? How did you blog?
Matt: Although we used phones a few times and sent a handful of postcards, we mostly kept in touch via email and skype. As for our blog, we generally wrote posts and selected photos on our laptop, before uploading our work in internet cafes.
Did you ever get tired of being with each other?
Joylani: I have found that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them, than to travel with them. -Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad I definitely still like Matt. And I still have fun hanging out with him all day, but it would be nice if we could find jobs sometime soon!
How long have you been traveling?
Joylani: Long enough to come home, but not long enough to feel quite finished.
Why did you come home?
Matt: Good question, especially in light of the fact that I often declare I could travel forever. Firstly, the initial excitement and novelty of our trip eventually wore off. Not that we travel only for travel’s sake, but I’m sure Vietnam, China, and Korea would have been more exciting had we visited them at the beginning of our trip rather than a year into it. And although we had some good times in South America towards the end, we weren’t really feeling it and decided to come home. Secondly, though, is the fact that we have other goals in our life besides travel. Sure, we could hypothetically travel for another few years, but that would push back our timeline for careers, kids, and many other non-travel-related experiences.
Joylani: And, I was tired of being sick. We skipped an extra week in Ecuador to come home sooner.
Did you have reverse culture shock?
Joylani: Not really. Just little things like hoarding coins and getting excited about not having to throw toilet paper in the trash can anymore.
Matt: I’d say we had a lot of culture shock during our mid-trip visit home from East Asia. Returning for good from South America, not so much. I think that’s because the Americas, as a whole, have a lot in common: Western values of democracy, individualism, work, immigration/diversity, and Christianity (Versus the corresponding “Asian” values of order, collectivism, education, homogeneity/racial primacy, and Buddhism).
Where did you stay?
Matt: We stayed in quite a range of places. A few times we stayed in rooms that cost under $1 or $2, like in Nepal or Laos. A few other times we stayed at five star places, such as when we met my family in Europe and Thailand. A handful of times, we stayed with friends and family who live abroad. But the other 90% of the time, we stayed in budget accommodations. Throughout Asia, we stayed in guest houses and hotels that generally cost anywhere from $5 in rural areas up to $15 in cities. Things are more expensive in South American hostels and hospedajes, where we spent an average of $15 for private rooms with shared bathrooms. Generally speaking, we usually stayed a few notches above the cheapest accommodation options available.
Joylani: Places we stayed ranged from a 50 cent per night plywood shack to the Mandarin Oriental and everything in between…but closer to the shack end in price range. During the course of about 600 days of travel we changed rooms over 200 times, in addition to 44 nights of overnight transportation.
What was the weirdest bed you slept in?
Joylani: We slept on this legit looking mattress that ended up feeling the same as sleeping on a piece of wood. I don’t know why the guest-house bothered spending money on a real mattress. Anyone who has ever been to Laos has probably slept on a similar bed.
Matt: Yea, a lot of beds that felt like boards. Slept on a few floors. A few cots. Probably the weirdest beds were the sleeping berths on Indian trains. Not because the beds were weird, but I’d always awake to some Indian staring at me. Why do Indians stare so much?
Joylani: They do stare. Matt always gave me the highest bunk. I always slept with my head covered in a scarf and built child-like forts with my extra sheet to hide myself from view. And there was one time an old Indian auntie sleeping on such a train bed woke herself up when she farted. I wasn’t there for that, but Matt was.
How did you get around?
Matt: The short answers is: every form of transportation imaginable (various classes of planes, trains, and buses, a million forms of vans and cars, auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks, motorcycle-pulled coaches, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, bicycle-rickshaws, walking, hiking/trekking, big cargo ships/ferries, small ferries, speedboats, motorboats, long-tail boats, canoes, and kayaks just to name a few )
Joylani: Our shoes tell it best (link to pic of my old nikes and matt’s chacos)
How did you deal with language?
Matt:English was widely spoken throughout Europe and the British Commonwealth. English is spoken in varying degrees throughout Southeast Asia and East Asia and we managed pretty well. That said, China was definitely the most difficult language-wise. Communicating in South America was no problem because Joylani speaks Spanish. I might also add that people belonging to the tourism industry or upper class in any country generally speak good (enough) English.
Joylani: For the most part, English was sufficient for getting around in Asia. While there were quite a few moments of confusion, some more frustrating than others, we were always able to get around, find food and a place to stay. Generally we learned how to say hello, bye, thank you, how much, yes/no, and a few food words in each place we went. Places that did not commonly use roman script (like Thailand) were more difficult. I remember arriving in Malaysia and for the first time in a while we could “read” signs, even if we didn’t know what all the words meant.
While in India, we relied on Matt’s Hindi-speaking abilities to strike up conversations with locals and garner a bit more respect in bargaining situations (hint: don’t let them know you speak Hindi at first, just listen to what the two dudes at the hotel or shop are saying to each other). Most people did not seem to expect tourists to be able to speak Hindi, and we had fun with it. Matt taught me numbers, which came in handy for secret communications in other countries as we sometimes needed to confer on a price in front of salesmen.
For China I bought a Mandarin phrase book which helped a lot. I re-learned my numbers and a few other words, which helped us to get around. Usually we could find someone who spoke a little English and the people we interacted with were helpful whether communicating in words or pointing (perhaps the helpfulness was in part due to public “nice” training for the Olympics?). More than once we had a waiter ask for English speakers (aka Hong Kong tourists) in the restaurant to help us order, otherwise I would just go in the kitchen and point to ingredients. I would have loved to known more words, as we met so many great locals who would have been fun to talk to, not to mention all the good food we must have missed out on!
Language wise, South America was a whole other story; I studied Spanish throughout JR high and high school. After a couple weeks of refresher classes and lots of studying, I could once again communicate in Spanish. Watching TV with Spanish subtitles helped me pick up new vocabulary as well as correct sentence structure. My grammar is so so and vocabulary limited, but getting around was definitely more enriched by being able to understand the language. From conversations with hospedaje owners, to understanding why the bus was delayed, it was great to have a solid grasp on the local language for the first time in a long while
Did you ever get ripped-off/mugged?
Matt: There were a fair amount of people who tried to overcharge us for goods/services and some that even flat out lied to us, but nobody ever robbed us or anything. Well, someone did steal a pair of shorts off our balcony on Pulau Perhentian and our thumb drive disappeared after we momentarily forgot it at an internet cafe in Leh. I consider ourselves pretty lucky, especially considering all the money/electronics we carried and the situations we put ourselves in. Just goes to show you that most people around the world are honest.
Did you ever feel in in danger?
Matt: There were a couple instances here and there, but not really. Traveling by night bus in Peru and Ecuador was a bit disconcerting, judging by the stories I’d heard and the security measures we were subjected to. We had a couple of moments during our trek in Nepal—not the Maoists who tried to charge us what was essentially a toll for using the trail, but the rock slide that injured Joylani was frightening. And hiking along a snowy slope at 17,000 feet at night was my scariest moment of the entire trip.
Joylani: In danger of pooping my pants…a couple times. But thankfully it never happened.
Did you meet up with any friends or family on the road?
Matt: We were fortunate enough to have plenty of friends and family living around the world. We traveled with my family through Europe, rendezvoused with Joylani’s high school friend Melissa in Switzerland, met our buddy Alvir in Delhi, my old friend Sekhar in Bangalore, our pal Krishna in Chennai, my parents in Thailand, another one of Joylani’s HS friends Kyla in Saigon, Joylani’s buddy Jeff in Qingdao, along with one of our friends also named Matt, yet another one of Joylani’s HS friends Paul in Beijing, fellow RTW traveler-couple Anderson and Liz in Busan, Joylani’s bro Josh in Sendai, her Uncle Mike in Himeji, the Shibata family friends the Tosu’s in Tokyo, my brother Alex in Peru, as well as the Shibata family friends the Proanos in Lima. Thanks to all you guys for the meals, places to stay, hospitality, and friendship!
Are you glad to be home?
Matt: My initial reaction is no. Nothing beats traveling, seeing the world, learning about it, and living adventurously. On the other hand, traveling forever would be difficult and require a lot of sacrifices. There’s a lot that I appreciate at and about home and there’s a lot of non-travel-related goals I have in my life. But honestly, would you be happy to end the greatest adventure of your life and go home?
Joylani: Yes. After a month and a half of being sick and regularly enduring bad food (except for our stint in Lima—wowza!), and approximately two years of living out of backpack, yes I’m happy to be where there’s soft carpet to walk on, a comfy sofa, my own bed every night, constant hot water in the bathroom (in the shower AND sink), a well-stocked kitchen, ten pairs of shoes and a closet full of clothes, friends and family nearby, and a grocery down the road. Yes, it is good to be home.
Matt: However, Joylani is the one that wants to move to China if we can’t find jobs, is already thinking about another long-term trip/move, and where/how we could raise a family abroad…
Joylani: And then Matt said, “This would have been good to bring up before we bought the car.” Oops.
Do you miss traveling?
Joylani: On the other hand (continuing from my last answer), there’s no noodle lady down the street, buying an eight dollar pad thai and my awful attempt at making it doesn’t come close to tasting how it does off a cart in Thailand. The clams in the market don’t spit water at you. When it is cold and rainy outside, I think about how nice it would be to be at a sunny beach in Thailand eating BBQ chicken and sticky rice. I miss seeing new things all the time, and it was fun to have such a high volume of random adventures with Matt. We laugh a lot when we recall things that happened to us during our trip.
Matt: Of course.
What have you learned?
Matt: When people ask me this question, I usually delve into one thing we’ve learned rather than spout off a list of things (in the interest of conversation). Here, in the interest of space and (my) time, I’m going to do the opposite.
-We (Americans) are incredibly lucky
-The world’s a big place; there’s a lot I don’t know and even more that I don’t know I don’t know
-I’ve learned a lot about myself and my wife
-A heck of a lot of history, culture, nature, and other facts.
Joylani: I learned to appreciate all kinds of things more, what good sushi really tastes like, how to dive, that doctors will generally always prescribe cipro, to always have change, how to cook lentils that actually taste good, how to pronounce “ll” like a true porteno, never to let someone with a mullet cut your hair, how to scout out a good open toilet, and that the more I learn, the more I see that there is more to learn about.
What did you pack?
Joylani:The clothes I carried during the trip changed more often than Matt as I cut-up and restyled clothes, left items behind, sent things home, and bought more travel appropriate things along the way. My recommendations for choosing clothes for such a trip are: pick things that layer, fit well, are not bulky, match with everything else, hand-wash and dry easily, that are not too boring to wear over and over, and preferably in a different color-scheme than your companion’s clothes, otherwise you will find yourselves matching often and it will look really lame. An important thing for me was to have light-weight things I could use as layers in cold weather, but also to protect me from the sun and bugs in hot weather without overheating while wearing them.
Clothes: 10 pairs underwear, 1 pair tennis shoes, 1 pair sandals, 1 long sleeve shirt, 1 rainjacket, 1 scarf, 5 shirts, 1 undershirt, 6 pairs socks, 3 bras, 1 bathing suit, 1 board shorts, 1 shorts, 1 pajama pants, 2 light-weight pants, 1 jeans, 1 belt, 1 fleece jacket (bought it at Target for $12 and it is still working well. Neither of us carried fleeces Thailand-Japan), 1 bandanna, sunglasses
Other Gear: I was in charge of one pelican case holding extra cords, chargers, and a hard drive, the waterproof camera case and my SD 550 Canon, Ipod, the clothes line, binder clips, scissors, a few toiletries (travel size sunscreen is the best!), travel towel, scrubby poof, medicine and first-aid kit, sleep sheet, a little pillow, mylar emergency blanket, travel alarm clock, headlamp, books, toilet paper, my journal, sketch book, a few art supplies, little note pad to keep notes, a few snacks for the road, waterbottle, extra plastic bags, envirosax bag (perfect for stowing jackets while exploring), purse/tote, rain cover, emergency docs and other paperwork. I also used the small zip-off backpack from Matt’s bigger bag to hold important stuff during travel. We had gloves, thermal pants, and walking sticks while in Nepal.
Matt: Like Joylani said, our packs evolved with our trip. But here’s what I carried all the time: 2 pants, 2 shorts, 4 boxers, 4 shirts, 1 t-shirt, 1 longsleeve shirt, 2-6 pairs of socks (depending on location), 1 belt, 1 travel towel, 1 raincoat, and I constantly bought and lost sunglasses. In Europe and South Asia, we alternated between hot and cool weather, so I had Chaco sandals, shoes, and a fleece. I also carried two small sleeping bags until we got to SEA. In South East and East Asia, I ditched the shoes and fleece due to the hot weather. We went to South America during their early spring, so I brought back the shoes and my fleece, but left the sandals. I carried my Pentax K100D, along with a couple filters, and even a tripod for the first few months. I was responsible for carrying our HP Pavilion TX 1110, until we replaced it with our Acer AspireOne netbook- perfect for travel! I carried most of the toiletries, the laundry soap, mosquito coils, a lighter, pocketknife, bottle opener and corkscrew, rain cover, 1 backup hard drive (Joylani carried one too), a chain and a couple locks, an Ipod, thumb drive, a journal, I usually carried the guidebooks, salt (after our leech incident) (which also spilled and caused my chain and locks to rust).
Is there anything you took that you didn’t need?
Joylani: Well, there were a couple items of clothing that I brought and didn’t like using…like a certain pair of ExOfficio pants that practically fit like a jumpsuit because the waist was so high. They didn’t take up a lot of space and were really great to have on the trek, but also looked hideous on me so I sent those home when I got a chance. After Indonesia the underwater camera case was not used, but I had taken it with me anyhow, just in case we went diving again. It was worth the possibility to have it, though definitely not needed in the second part of the trip.
Matt: Two mylar emergency blankets that Joylani insisted we bring.
Joylani: Actually, I used one of them in a dirty hotel room in Dharamsala to cover the bed before putting my sleep-sheet on it. It was an emergency. Besides, in case of a real emergency, I don’t like to be cold. We might have needed those.
What are you glad you took?
Joylani: This list could cover almost everything—my packing was so limited on this trip, many of my items were essentials, but here are a few of my favs:
La Fuma 4810 backpack: Though the top loading was a pain at times, the size was perfect and the bag comfortable to carry. This thing has been traveling with me since me first trip to India in 2004.
Nike Air Max Assail III trail runners: These shoes saved my knees, were light and comfy, and easy to clean. They proved sturdy enough for trekking, and due to my lack of another pair of good shoes or sandals, I walked pretty much everywhere in them. They were so great that I bought another pair to take with me on the second half of the trip.
Women’s REI lightweight MTS long sleeve shirt: kept me warm when I needed another layer, breathable enough to wear at night in hot climates to protect from mosquitoes, protected me from the sun (it’s SPF50), easy to take in a day bag or tie around waist, it is cut well and easy to hand wash and dries fast. This shirt was great, just don’t put it in the dryer at home, it will snag.
Boy’s REI Ultralight Jacket: though it lacks the armpit zippers in the adult coat that Matt loves, the children’s version works just as well for a much lower price. I think I got mine for around $30. It is lightweight and great for blocking wind as well as water, I never had a problem with it leaking. There is a handy Ipod chest pocket where I stowed my camera for easy access during hikes.
High thread-count sleep sheet: this was my luxury item I decided to take on the second half of the trip in lieu of the two single bag liners made from some nasty green stretchy fabric that Matt got at REI. I made this double-sized liner from a 600 thread count cal-king flat sheet I found on clearance at Target ($10 bucks baby!). It was totally worth the little bit extra space it took up to sleep in this instead of two little ones, or worse, scratchy, pilled-up, and probably dirty hotel sheets.
The “Little Guy” aka a small pillow: This got replaced once during the trip. Matt made fun of me for having my own pillow throughout our journey, but I caught him using it a few times. Not only was it good for long bus rides, but it was almost always nicer to use than hotel pillows which tend to be one or more of the following: dirty, allergy ridden, too tall, really stiff–did they put hay in here? (Where’s the Little Guy? See if you can spot a red or green pillow in our pictures!)
Well-stocked first aid kit: Even though obtaining meds is easy in most countries, it was nice to have English instructions and just-in-case stuff on hand at all times resulting in limited trips to the pharmacy.
Laptop and cameras were good to have too.
Matt: I’m also pretty pleased with everything we brought. Ditto what Joylani said about everything from REI: my fleece, ultralight rain shell, pants, and shoes (the member exchange policy was put to good use on a few items).
What things would you have done differently?
Joylani: I would have liked to have spent more time in Malaysia, Indonesia, and China. It would also have been nice to have learned some Bahasa Indonesia and Mandarin ahead of time because I think we could have had some really interesting and fun conversations with people. I would not have gone on a cruise of Ha Long Bay. Also, I would have taken dive lessons the same time as Matt so that I could have avoided those nasty sand fly bites on Tioman (and made it to KL in time for the John Legend show). There are a few little things here and there which are insignificant (eaten more cendol and satay, bought more Le-Fake SportSac bags), but they do not matter in the grand scheme of things. One question that we have asked ourselves many times is if we should have gone to South America, should we have done it differently? I find it really hard to give this question a definitive answer, but generally the answer is no. Even though a lot of it was hard for us, I am glad we went. Despite the fact that it was not on our original itinerary, Matt and I both made the decision to go to South America based on a few things: curiosity—what was our neighboring continent like anyways? Mountains and Patagonia—the landscape sounded beautiful and haunting. Machu Picchu—this was more of a reason for Matt, as for some reason I never really had a desire to make a point of going. Once we had been in South America for a while, we realized that we did not enjoy it in the same way as other parts of our trip, and that many parts of it were a lot more difficult than we had expected or experienced before. Above anything else, it was hard because we were physically ill for a lot of it. In the end, however, we got the main things out of South America that we wanted, and I am glad we went. It is not somewhere that I will likely be able to visit extensively in the future, and I am glad that we took the opportunity to see it. Now, from a financial standpoint and getting the most bang for your buck, our 4 months in South America was not practical at all. Not just were some things cost prohibitive in South America, but from the cost of the initial flight to Buenos Aires, to higher priced (and lesser value) accommodations, plus the splurge on the trek, these same finances could have gone a lot further in Asia equaling more days on the road, more luxurious accommodations, more diving, and tastier food.
Matt: The three main things I can think of all relate to our itinerary.
1.The biggest mistakes we made were buying air tickets and thus committing ourselves too far in advance. For instance, we bought round-trip tickets to Borneo. Once there, we really liked it and wished we could spend more time, but our return ticket was already bought. We had the opposite problem in South America, where once we began traveling the continent, we realized we didn’t like it all that much. Although we would have preferred to leave sooner, our ticket out had already been booked and we had to wait for our flight. In hindsight, we should have chosen flexibility over cheap airfares and/or the fear of rising airfares.
2.Although we planned constantly, we overlooked some important things a couple times. A relatively minor instance was be heading south towards Malaysia without knowing that it was monsoon season there. Eventually, we did a 180 and re-planned our entire SE Asia itinerary. A somewhat major blunder was caused by our ignorance of the tightening Chinese visa restrictions ahead of the 2008 Olympics, and the fact that we’d bought our ticket out of China months ahead of time. All the details are complicated, but the end result was that we had more time in Vietnam than we wanted, less time in China than we wanted, and a ridiculous itinerary that took us from China to the US (for our six week visit home), then from the US to Korea and Japan, before returning to US en route to South America. I’d say our planning was pretty good overall, but hey, I gotta answer the question.
3.Lastly, if we could do it all over again, we’d probably add some countries and skip some, while adjusting the amount of time we spent in a few destinations. Of course, I am writing this only with the benefit of hindsight.
Despite the fact that my answer to this question is so long, I couldn’t be happier about how the past 20 months have turned out. There’s nothing major I would have done differently and the main thing is that I have zero regrets.