Thursday, 23 February 2012

A Year In The Ring of Fire

Well I am Home, I have sorted my job applications for the day and other menial tasks one has to do at home so I thought I'd get this finalised....  enjoy

I have been plotting and planning this blog post ever since I got to South East Asia as to me that signals the end of the trip, despite still being 3 months away at the time it feels like nothing. This was not to say I wasn't keen to carry on travelling, I was. In fact when Welshman decided to head home I seriously considered the same thing but it was never a viable option. I know I would have regretted it, there were still adventures to be had, people to meet and experiences to well, experience. Cambodia proved it was the right choice, the warmth of the people and everything coming together at New Year. (I'm actually writing this still in Cambodia with a solid 45 days to go before I even finish my travels but what I can recall about the year starts now). Being the cynical grumpy bastard I pretend to be, this is actually quite hard, recollecting on everything that has happened, from the amazing scenery to the wonderful people I have met. It has been such an amazing year that I can't understand what I ever did to deserve it. In travelling around the World you learn that despite everything it isn't that big (anymore) and we are all the same. Despite this it is big enough that I have come nowhere near seeing everything and there is still so much more to see. I have seen the worlds highest mountain and sailed under the stars, slept in a temple, a farmers house and many other locations (including an airport). I crossed the international date line twice as well as making it to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time. At every step and turn, sometimes just when you began to lose faith you would meet or find something that made it all worthwhile. So, A year in the ring of fire, Sauntering 'Vaguely' Downwards the year that was.
The Very Beginning, Night One - Hong Kong.
I couldn't quite figure out how to mention everything so I will do brief recaps/highlights of countries, you can find the whole adventure in the previous blogs. Starting in China I fell in love all over again, the people, culture, food and everything. I did all the things I meant to and had time left for some new things. I slept in a temple on a mountain, saw the Li River and even made it to Tibet where I met people who had never seen the Sea. I have since met people who've never seen snow. China was a good reintroduction to the travel lifestyle as it is fairly familiar to me. I'll chuck Korea in here as I was only there a week, seeing Clare who I hadn't seen in a while which is always nice.
Stupa in Zhongdian

Japan came next, a complete culture shock from China. I drank too much sake and ate raw horse. I slept in traditional Ryokans with Tatami mats with sliding doors. I saw the illustrious snowcapped Mt.Fuji, got lost on the Tokyo metro and spent a majority of my time in the 'Onsen'. Arriving 2 months after the Fukushima disaster I saw a country in mourning and repair, yet still very upbeat. It is this pragmatism and cheer that teaches you obstacles can be overcome even with the threat of nuclear oblivion hovering over you.
Nara, Japan

Canada was once again completely different(obviously) to Asia. I watched Ice hockey, predicted a riot and was impressed with the clean up effort afterwards; the best and worst of humanity in 24 hours. It was apparent it wasn't the Vancouvans who had really rioted as they spoke out against it. I saw a humpback whale with Mercedes and saw the most beautiful lake in the world, before walking on a glacier and witnessing bears in the wild(an everyday occurrence for Canadians). Canada was a land of natural wonder and odd food (Poutine)
Lake Louise
Continuing South I walked across Niagara falls where I learnt how incompetent bus companies in America are. I met my friend Welshie for some well needed companionship. We joked with police officers and visited most of the 'great american cities'. In America I was amazed at how generous Welshie's friends were with putting not just him up, but me a stranger too on the logic 'any friend of yours'. They not only put us up but often took us on tours or arranged them for us when they couldn't. It really made me address my half assed attitude to the same thing back home. They repeatedly went the extra mile at every turn. We met Savage and drove up the west coast witnessing beautiful nature and having hilarious adventures (the stripper, the lesbian and the transgender). I returned to Yosemite and it truly is one of the most beautiful places in the world. We saw both man and natures dark sides again, forest fires in Nevada and gambling addiction in Reno.
Lake Victoria
I parted ways with Welshman as me and Savage headed to Panama. We practised our Spanish with the hostel staff and had drunken conversations at 3am in the pool with lightning flashing above us. My naivety kicked in here as a I realised there is no land route from Panama to Colombia in order to get to Peru(the plan). In one of those amazing coincidences I learnt to you could sail to Colombia and so I ended up spending five days at sea sailing to Colombia which was one of the best experiences of the whole trip, and true to the subtitle I hadn't intended to visit Colombia but in the end I did, and I think I needed to. I fell in love with the way Colombian women move on the dancefloor and made it to Peru.
Puerto Lindo
Peru was easily one of my favourite places.Culturally I saw ancient lines, in a hilariously dangerous plane(now its hilarious), climbed Machu Picchu and hung out with monkeys in the Jungle. I cut short Chile just to adventure more in Peru. I met some truly amazing people and was invited to Peruvian birthday parties left right and centre. It wasn't all gravy in Peru there were times I questioned what I was doing and for a few days became unmotivated, but I think this was largely due to not having a proper coversation with anyone for about a week.  However everything transpired to turn the last couple of weeks in Peru in to another amazing time, returning to a hostel 1 month and a half later to still be recognised is a fantastic feeling. This continued in the few days I had in Chile, once again peoples generosity shone through. I met a girl who despite not having ever met agreed to meet and give me tips for Santiago(her mum works with my mum, so in typical mum meddling she passed on the details)
Local Peruvians
In New Zealand it was once again time to meet the Welshman, with a new companion the Stonelake. Old hockey boys from the Plymouth days. New Zealand is again a country of natural beauty. Driving around was a great way to see it as we could stop where and whenever. Once again the Welshmans contacts sorted us out with incredible hospitality, sometimes turning up no less than half an hour before and being lavished with wine. I popped in on my cousin Doug who has a house with a stunning view over South Wellington and the sea. I became frustrated with the New Zealand hostel system, a moniker of "for backpackers by backpackers" is clearly crap when every little thing is charged extra (and it isn't cheap to begin with). Despite this we had a great time in New Zealand, partied with Orlando Bloom (not really) and marvelled at the sites. Visiting Christchurch we saw the destruction from the Earthquake and it was sad to see that the centre has been ruined and the mood in town was rather solemn, while in Thailand we learnt that it had been hit with yet another Earthquake which is never good news. Australia was a write off because I can not afford to spend 3 weeks there.
Some River
Looking forward to returning to Asia, Thailand was both welcome but a bit of a disappointment at times. The rampant over commercialisation found in parts is almost exactly why one wants to leave England. I also found the backpackers weren't so much here to see things, experience culture but more get as drunk as possible. Despite this we met some incredible people, some stunning sites and amazing experiences. It is often when I became disheartened that the best things happen, there are definitely places in Thailand I would return to. I spent my first Christmas away from home, which was a quiet time for reflexion of the previous year and what was to come. Although I spent Christmas eve and Christmas day alone (apart from Kevin)  it never really felt depressing to be alone at this time due to being surrounded by beautiful beaches and relaxed beach bars with fireworks. I wondered if people were thinking "What kind of decisions do you have to make to end up alone at Christmas?"; in my case pretty good ones. However I shared a thought for those whose Christmasses weren't so good, and recounted some of the sights/stories I've seen or heard that were not so uplifting. The second half of Thailand made me think I had been a little too harsh on it as first as I discovered the other, nicer quieter side to it. The Welshman decided to go home midway through and three months early and I can understand why. Either way I eventually re-found my zest and headed to Cambodia.
Rai Leh, Ao Son Tai beach
I almost instantly fell in love with Cambodia. I celebrated an amazing New Year on the beach with new and (new) old friends with fireworks galore. I finally got my sailing fix on and enjoyed some incredible seafood before I left beaches behind for good. I witnessed the dark history of Cambodia and then the incredible sight that is Angkor Wat. The people in Cambodia were amazing and some of the friendliest on the whole trip. With time running out I had to leave Cambodia, rather reluctantly and it is an almost definite return location.
Fishing at Sunset in Cambodia
With time running out the next stop was Vietnam. I started by taking a boat trip down this part of the worlds most important/famous river the Mekong to the Delta area. I acclimatised to the hustle of Saigon and learn't more about the Vietnam war than I had really previously looked in to and learnt the horrors of Napalm and Agent Orange. I headed north in to what was a cold and wet climate. Tet got in the way of a lot of my plans but I met friends from home and made many new ones, which is what its all about. I visited the scenic sights of  Halong bay and the Hai Van Pass before finishing Vietnam in the  UNESCO heritage town of Hoi An, I enjoyed my time in Vietnam but I had met others who had not had such a great time, being scammed as such it reminded one to always be aware and how different experiences shape your opinions.
At Halong Bay
Laos was the next and last new country I would visit on the trip making it country number 15. For a period of time in Nam I had considered skipping Laos due to time constraints but in the end after everyone I know who had been telling me I had to I found the time to include it and was glad I did. Half of all travelling is relying on word of mouth for places and you get an opinion that even the best guide book would fail to provide. I skipped Vientiane and headed to party capital Vang Vieng where I randomly met people I had met all around South East Asia, once again ramming home the 'it's a small world' theory. After leaving Vang Vieng it was time for cultural time in another UNESCO heritage city where I took in temples and met lots of elephants. Laos was a stunning country and I am disappointed I had so little time to explore, there are many sights I would have liked to get in but this is the nature and inevitably when time has become short. The last few months in Asia were almost a contrast to the first three where I had plenty of time and I operated at a slower pace but still managed to take (almost) everything in.
Temple, Laos
Returning to Thailand almost felt like a home coming, not just because it is the only country I revisited on the trip, and nor because I was returning to a familiar location (I was not, Chiang Mai was totally new to me) it was because it was the end, I had the prospect of seeing old faces with little agenda except to prepare for heading back to rainy England. I needn't say a lot here because it is all covered in the previous blog post. What I can say is that obviously being so close to returning home I spent a lot of time thinking about what I will do when back home and seeing If I have come any closer on figuring out what to do with myself. So far the answer is no. I was ready to return not because I am bored/sick of travelling but just because I am looking forward to familiarity and staying in the same place for a while. This is what I came to crave towards the end, stability.
Elephants by the river

People will probably ask me if I've changed or if I learnt anything on my travels. I am not sure if I have changed, I feel my perspective has slightly changed and I hope I am a bit more welcoming and can repay some of the hospitality I have experienced on my travels. Before I finally round up this year long review I thought I'd include some statistics/figures ranging from countries visited, books read to items lost/stolen;

Total countries visited: 15
Books read: over 30

I have taken over 20,0000 pictures.
I have gone through; 3 pairs of shoes, 2 side bags, 3 pairs of flip flops, 1 pair of shorts and 3 pairs of swim shorts.
I have lost; 2 phones, 1 towel and wash bag, a padlock and chain, 1 speaker, 2 t-shirts and most of my socks (Seriously I started with about 7 pairs, bought more along the way and I have about 3 left) :/
I have broken; 2 pairs of headphones, a pair of chopsticks.

On top of this I have mailed two boxes home and sent more stuff home with Welshie.

So to finish, I wrote the majority of this in Cambodia while I waited for a bus, it was an emotional recollection from the lows to the highs, but mostly due to the highs I got emotional. Setting out alone I could never have envisioned what was to come, before I set out I was apprehensive and wondered if I could actually make it a year. Some people think I'm brave for heading out on my own for a year, often I will hear "alone, wow I couldn't..." etc. Truth is, I am little fish in a big ocean with no direction and it was often other peoples faith in me that when stranded in a little village in Panama or in Peru in a tiny town at 3am for instance, that I didn't panic or throw it to the wall and carried on. I've met people who've been through much more hardship than I have ever had to endure and these people are inspiration, at home and abroad. They know who they are and if I tried to name them I'd feel bad if I forgot someone. At New Year in Cambodia we were asked, if there was one thing in 2011 we would have changed about the year, my answer "absolutely nothing" So as I wrote this in a bar in Cambodia back in January getting teary and not really caring who knew, thinking about it all, I'd do it all again in an instant (after a couple of months rest :P).

"You live and learn. At any rate, you live" - Douglas Adams
"Some things never change...some things do.." Morpheus - The Matrix
My longest travel companion, Kevin & me in Vietnam at Hai Van Pass

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