...maybe - I don't know if I want to write anymore
10.13.14 - 11.13.14 80 °F
The final part began after we stepped off the ferry in Wellington. It wasn’t the smoothest boat ride I’ve ever had, and we were both definitely feeling the effects (to put it gently). We found a free legal place to camp a little outside of the city that became our base for the next three nights and four days. While in Wellington, we visited a decent amount of Lord of the Rings sites. I won’t go too in depth here, but the highlight for me was the Weta Cave workshop. It was here that most of the props were made for all of the Lord of the Rings films, in addition to some of the computer generated elements. It’s a pretty cool place, but as they are still working on films and shows that are in production, taking photos was prohibited.
After Wellington, we had a few more places that on our list before getting to Hobbition, near Matamata, for our November 4th tour. One of these was Mordor, which was on a ski mountain. Even though it was spring, it was snowing when we arrived in the early afternoon. This was the first legitimate snowfall (not mixed with rain/sleet) that Allen had ever seen. The ski mountain is on an active volcano so even though there was a decent amount of snow on the ground, there were plenty of solid black volcanic rocks sticking through the snow to imagine the place as Mordor.
One other highlight before arriving in Hobbiton was the free hot springs in Taupo. The vast majority of hot springs we encountered along the way cost at least some money, either by day or even by hour. The one in Taupo was free to park at and we could stay all day. We spent almost two days in those 108* F pools and it was completely worth it.
We finally made it to Hobbiton on the last full day that we had the van. The set was originally built for the Lord of the Rings on private land and part of it was left after the crew wrapped. As it was falling apart, the land owner did what he could to fix it up and turn it into a tourist attraction. The production company eventually fixed it even more and then came back to shoot the Hobbit movies there and now it is a much more permanent tourist location. It is easily the most developed of the Lord of the Rings sets in New Zealand.
“Why don’t you do something life-changing?” My dad posed this question soon after I started a new job in New York City. I was just happy to have a well-paying, full time job in my field. I ended up staying at that job for seven and a half months, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Subconsciously, though, I think his initial suggestion had planted a seed in my brain. He thought I should just work as much as I could (I had a few side jobs as well), live at home, and save as much as I could. In just under eight months, I had saved almost fifteen thousand dollars.
I had been applying for jobs even as I was working, and half-jokingly, I applied for a job a photographer at Vail in Colorado. We had skied there the previous winter and I had some of the best days of skiing in my life. In the early fall of 2013, someone from Vail asked if I could do a Skype interview. I had pretty much forgotten about that application so I was surprised I had heard anything back. After a few interviews I was offered a job for the winter of 2013-2014. I now had a choice to make – keep saving and working in the city or do something really out of the box, especially for me. I would be taking a huge pay cut to go to Vail and I would have a bunch of other expenses I didn’t have to worry about at home (rent, food, etc.)
I decided to go to Vail. Since this essay isn’t about that trip, I won’t go much more into my experience in Vail, but the pros of working there far outweighed the cons. I was glad I had started to break out of the box.
Throughout most of my time at Vail, I had begun planning something even bigger than moving to Colorado: traveling around the world. I had no idea where to begin, but if you Google “rtw travel” you will find plenty of places to start and you’ll be hard-pressed to resist the call to grab your passport and go.
My savings had taken somewhat of a hit with all the upfront costs of moving across the country, but after reading the budgets of others who had completed round the world trips, I was reasonably comfortable with my financial situation. Getting over this hurdle helped this whole thing seem so much more plausible and I started to accelerate my research. I started to realize I had a lot to do on top of usual vacation preparations. Vaccines, visas, transportation, accommodation, supplies…. It just kept going and soon started to overwhelm me. I realized I had to start solidifying things or I would just be going in circles. At the same time, I was trying to persuade at least some friends to at least meet me somewhere along the way. Unfortunately I was for the most part unsuccessful, but from the start, I recognized that people had motivate themselves to do something like this. I could only give them the option to join me.
Multiple articles had said that one of the most important parts of planning something like this is to settle on a departure date so as to not continuously procrastinate and make excuses to go. I wasn’t nearly prepared enough to pick an exact date during the winter, but I settled on the range of sometime in mid-July (I happened to leave exactly in the middle of July – July 15).
The best thing about hostels is the price, but a close second is the locations of some of them. Because I was staying in cheaply in rooms with multiple other people, I was able to stay in some pretty fantastic places. The one that sticks out the most was the hostel I stayed at in Venice. I was less than a 3 minute walk from St. Mark’s Square. I can’t imagine how much a hotel in a similar would set me back.
Security in a hostel is an interesting dynamic. It seems, to me at least, that there is an uneasy truce between roommates in a hostel. Everyone recognizes that their stuff is all equally vulnerable, so people don’t steal things. I never had anything stolen while I stayed in hostel, but there were a few iffy places. I could have just been lucky, but if there was anywhere I was unsure about, I just made sure to bring my valuables with me and just locked my clothes in my bag. If someone was desperate enough to steal my clothes, it would be a bad day but it wouldn’t be as much of a disaster as if they somehow got my camera and/or laptop.
Ear plugs are a worthwhile investment. There are some people that don’t snore at all and then there are others that make the walls shake with their snoring. There are also people that come into the room late at night so if you’re a light sleeper, they’re definitely needed. I can’t stand the feeling of sleeping with ear plugs, so I usually put one in one ear and then covered the ear with a pillow.
Speaking of roommates, I met some really interesting people. Everything from kids just out of high school to a middle aged gentleman from Slovenia that regularly stays in a hostel in Istanbul to work. There were also some slightly anxious moments like a Russian guy in Venice who immediately got into a conversation with one of our American roommates about Russian-American relations a few days after the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down in Ukraine. I also met a guy in a hostel in Istanbul who had just escaped from Syria.
A checking account from Charles Schwab was amazingly helpful. Instead of being charged lots of fees, an account from Charles Schwab is free to use and any fees charged by individual ATMs are refunded.
The exchange rate was certainly not in my favor in western Europe and England, but as I moved east, things started to improve until I got to Australia and New Zealand. The best was in southeast Asia. I rented an electric scooter in Bagan, Myanmar for a full day for the equivalent of about $7. I got an hour long Thai massage in Bangkok for $5. I was eating full meals (not McDonald’s) for less than $5.
It was a blessing and a curse to start in Italy. If there was one thing that had stuck with me about Italian culture, besides art and religion, it was the food. Pizza, pasta, wine, and so much more. I was glad I had the opportunity to visit the country but I wasn’t sure how the cuisine in the other countries would shape up against my initial experiences in Italy.
Visas are absolutely necessary to check ahead of time. The majority of European countries, especially western, don’t require a visa, but as you go east, the countries requiring a visa increase. I needed some sort of visa in England, Turkey, India, Myanmar, Vietnam and Australia. The most difficult one was India (see my India entry).
This was the biggest wildcard for me. My plan was to go through as many countries as I could with the time I had. Because of this ambiguity, I felt overwhelmed about trying to learn any languages. I downloaded an iPhone app in an attempt to pick up some key words in languages I thought I might need, but I didn’t really know what direction to head in.
When I arrived in Italy, I realized some additional preparation would have probably been a good idea. There were few words and directions that were obvious, but there were many more instances that knowing at least some basic words in the native language would have been immensely helpful.
The trip started with a roughly eight hour flight from JFK airport to Milan Malpensa in Italy. The flight itself was unremarkable, but I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived. I correctly figured that there would be a lot of Italian, but I didn’t know how things like making my way through customs and traveling to my hostel would go.
I activated my train pass a few days after I arrived in Italy. This was to be my primary, if not sole, means of transportation for that first month in Europe. Most of my train rides were during the day, but I did manage to take a few overnight trains. I made a mistake on my first overnight train by buying a ticket in a regular seat (similar to a plane). It was impossible to sleep as the lights in that car were never dimmed. After that, every other overnight train I took in those 4 months, I spent a little extra for a berth.
Through my four months of travel, I rode planes, trains, taxis, ferries, a “rib”, the bed of multiple pickup trucks, an electric motor scooter, a kayak, cars, a small cruise boat, buses, a white water raft, a converted van with a bed and kitchen in the back, a bike, auto rickshaws, and an elephant. My most important mode of transportation, though, was my feet. I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time on my feet, but the few times that I was able to weigh myself told the full story. There were times I was 10-15 pounds under my normal weight.
I brought my iPhone, my Canon 5D and a small Asus laptop/tablet combo (the lightest computer I could find). I know some people do these trips completely by unattached to the digital world but I wasn’t ready to take that step yet. Besides, as a photographer/videographer, I didn’t want to be in a situation wishing I had my camera instead of a small point and shoot. It was insured and I was glad I brought it as there were many places I was happy I was lugging around a heavy DSLR.
My original plan was to purchase a SIM card in every country I visited but after seeing the rates in Italy, I figured I’d try just putting the phone in airplane mode and look for wifi hotspots. While there were a few places data would have been helpful, using only wifi worked surprisingly well and saved me a lot of money.
I never seriously considered bringing my MacBook Pro as it was too heavy, bulky and I doubt it would have survived being stuffed into my completely full bag. The issue then, was to find a replacement that balanced a weight limit with something that was actually useful. I settled on this Asus that I’m currently typing on. The keyboard isn’t quite full size and it’s Windows as opposed to Mac, but it has a USB 3.0 port and the screen separates to create a standalone tablet. It took some getting used to, but Photoshop and Lightroom run decently well on it (and I can even play some old 90’s PC games).
I was nervous about travelling alone. I had tried to convince some of my friends to join me for at least parts of my journey, but they were understandably reluctant to make such a large time and financial commitment.
It ended up going better than expected. I was able to do what I wanted when I wanted. There were some days that I just decided I’d go to a certain country in a few hours and not have to discuss it with anyone. On the other hand, there were a few meals it would have been nice to have someone to eat with. When I met Allen in Australia, I told him it was going to be really nice talking to someone in fluent American English again. Either way though, I think traveling alone was really interesting and I would definitely do it again.
Random lessons that don’t fit anywhere else:
If someone is not in a uniform and they’re offering to help you, they just want your money.
As much as I tried to blend in, there were always going to be places that a 6’4” white guy was going to stand out.
Take some time to put the camera down and enjoy the experience for a moment.
Trust your instincts, especially when it comes to food.
Before (July 15, 2014)