Saturday, September 27, 2008

Final Thoughts

Well, it's over. The long, wandering trek around the world is finally completed.
People have asked me things like, "Was it worth it?" and "Where was your favorite place?"
To answer the first, I'd say absolutely. I wouldn't have missed it for...well, the world. I had a great time. Sure, there were setbacks and hardships at times, things like missed connections, noisy or stuffy hostel rooms, smokey restaurants, sunburns, baffling subway systems, unhelpful officials. But I accepted all that as part of the journey. If all had been easy and comfortable, it woulnd't have been the same. If every hotel room was nice, and every station attendant was smilingly helpful, it would have somehow been less of an adventure. The scary eastern European train stations at night will not soon be forgotten, nor the creepy beggars or the pushy Turkish carpet salesmen. (Hey, I just realized that I never saw a single female store clerk in all of Turkey. I suppose it's that Muslim taboo against women working certain jobs. Shame, I bet they'd sell more rugs if they let the ladies give it a try.)
Anyway, as I was saying, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Even all the waiting at the airports, train stations and ferry terminals (I caught up on my reading then) and the riding itself took up time as well. The longest train journey was from Romania to Bicester England, which took a day and a half, not counting the night's stop in a hotel in Cologne. But I had several good books, including my little sudoku book which accompanied me on the entire trip (I still have a few of the difficult ones to finish). The longest flight I had was Singapore to Istanbul, 13 hours. The flights were the easiest of all to pass time on: I just watched movies and the hours flew by. Sometimes I was almost disappointed when we over; there were always more movies than time to watch! The ferry trips were never very long and most ferries are now almost small cruise ships complete with restaurants and bars, video game rooms, shopping areas and sometimes even small movie theaters. I still prefer to pass the time up on deck, feeding the gulls and enjoying the views when not reading in the bright sunshine and col breezes.

So the traveling itself was quite nice, and the destinations were (usually) even better. What place did I like the best? I don't really have a favorite, I must admit. They all had their good and bad points. The Elephant Nature Park in Thailand was full of exciting chances to interact with the gentle giants, fantastic food and loads of wonderful people from across the globe to ejoy. But it was hot, humid, rather primitive and miles from anywhere. Almost exactly the opposite, Vienna, Austria is a stunning city of beauty and grace, yet my visit felt cold and lonely as I met not a single person with whom to really talk to.
Yet I would love to go back to both places. It's pretty much the same with everywhere I went-- some good, some not so good, yet all different and interesting. Well, maybe I saw enough of Bucharest to satisfy me, but most places had far too much to see for one visit. I feel almost like I was on a scouting trip, just stopping by for a quick look-see and then moving on. But I enjoyed it all: every museum, big and small, every grand old cathedral and quiet little church, each food market and cafe and pub, and everyone I met, from the wonderful folks who kindly took me in to their homes to the grumpy ticket agents who refused to speak english even if they knew it. They all added to the trip in their own ways. I thank them all.

Here's a few things I've learned while traveling:
- Remember to drink the water bottle before going through the security line at the airport.
- You can't see everything. Pace yourself; if it's that good, plan on coming back some day.
- Don't walk when you can ride-- you'll need that energy later.
- A quiet hotel room is a precious thing; one with air conditioning as well is a treasure beyond price.
- Don't settle in for the night without something to snack on. Especially on an overnight train. Once I went hungry all day because I figured I'd have plenty of time to lounge in the dining car that night, only to find out there was no dining car!
- ASK QUESTIONS. I cannot stress this enough. I jumped on a train which I thought was going my way. After not seeing my destination posted I asked a passenger just to confirm, and it turned out to be the wrong train. I barely made it out of the train in time.
- Even if you have a first-class ticket, try second-class sometimes. You meet more interesting people.
- If you have time, volunteer. The best times I had on the whole trip were when I was volunteering-- I met the best people, had fun with the animals, and got so many extra benefits I can't even list them all here. Trust me on this. Volunteering will change your position from just another tourist to a member of a special group of friends with local connections. It was the best decision I made!
- Never pass up a bathroom when you get the chance--especially a free one. Or a chance to recharge your laptop.
- PACK LIGHT. Then remove half of it. I thought I had packed light for an 8-month trip. I would have been fine with half as much.
Speaking of packing, some of you may have been wondering just how much I brought with me, and what kind of baggage I lugged around the world. I started out with the blue suitcase pictured (chosen because it has both wheels and backpack straps, which I never used) and the camo knapsack. I crammed them full of as much clothes as would fit, not knowing how cold or hot it might be where I was going. I had two pairs of jeans, two ultralight long pants, two shorts (one doubling as bathing suit) about six t-shirts, two sweatshirts (one regular, one polartec), a jacket that doubled as a raincoat, and a few nice shirts. This plus underwear, hat, umbrella, books, maps, travel documents, still and video cameras, toiletries and assorted knick-knacks that you collect when traveling made for quite a heavy load.
By design they were compatible and I could roll them together or carry them separately up stairs and onto trains, when necessary. But I soon found that I needed something else-- a day pack. When I'd reach a hotel and go out to sightsee, I needed something to carry my guidebook, water bottle, camera(s), wallet, passport, sunglasses and sometimes jacket and umbrella, and the knapsack was too big and full of luggage to empty and repack each time. So in New Zealand I kept my eyes open for an army surplus store, and upon finding one, quickly selected the little green bag that was perfect for my needs. It even held my little Fujitsu laptop which came in handy on trains, when I wanted to get it without digging into the knapsack. It took up hardly any room and could easily be carried along with the rest of the stuff. I also finally found a nifty little travel fan which I bought; I had had enough of hot, stuffy European hotel rooms with no air conditioning-- few of them even had a hotel I coud use. Being metal it was a bit heavy but I slept much better with it, so it was worth it.
I mention all the clothes I brought because I wanted to point out that, in spite of being all I had to last for 6 months, it was really too much! Yes, believe it or not, I had no need of half of it. Two pairs of jeans? So what if they were two different colors? I hardly wore the green ones, and who would have known the difference anyway? I was rarely with the same people more than three days. And even when I stayed longer, they understood that I was traveling and forgave me the style faux pas of being seen in the same pants the same week.
I think the reason why there are so many tourists struggling with so much luggage is mainly because people try to continue the dress codes abroad that they abide by at home with their closets full of garments. They cling to the silly belief that they must not be seen in the same articles twice in the same week. I spent three weeks in France and Spain with just the knapsack, and got along fine. I had a little bottle of laundry soap, and every other night did a bit of scrubbing in the sink, which was dry by morning. Not always perfect, I'll grant, but a lot better than pulling the extra weight around. (Of course, it helped knowing that I wouldn't need cold-weather clothes.)
Anyway, it was a mind-opening trip of a lifetime. I wouldn't travel for that long again; maybe 3 or 4 months at the most. More than that can just be too tiring. It's a lot of work, planning your next city, finding the right train, locating a hotel, walking around a new city. Day after day, week after week, no matter how exotic and interesting the locales, it wears you down. At my age, it's amazing I lasted that long.
I lost 10 pounds as well, which was part of the plan. I avoided rich desserts and gelatos, and kept to my vegetarian diet, not always easy in countries with meat-rich cuisines like Turkey and Hungaria. And I maintained my vegetarian diet, except for that one accidental ordering of Hungarian goulash in Budapest (I didn't realize it had meat in it). It wasn't always easy, like in Istanbul where there were several kebab places on every block; but I also discovered a world of new dishes and flavors that I never would have otherwise. And I'm kind of proud that I made it-- spouting on about animal welfare would sound kind of hollow if I turned around and ate them. It would be rather like a slaveholder claiming to be concerned with civil rights issues. Anyway, it's not hard now, it's just a way of life.
And I took over a thousand photos, so I'll always keep the memories fresh of the wanderjahr of 2008. Thanks for sharing it with me.
~Dave Bernazani September 2008

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

San Francisco Sunsets

I was only back in Virginia for two days when I was flying again, this time back out to San Francisco. I had been offered work by Rick, the vet who was in Romania in May doing spay/neuter clinics. I wanted to check out his clinic and some apartments before moving out there. So after a freezing flight on Virgin America which has one blanket and pillow on each flight (I kid you not, there was ONE blanket on the entire airplane), Rick met me with his truck and cool dog "Honey", a sweet mixed mutt he rescued while volunteering in Mexico.
He let me stay at his house in Vallejo, a beautifully-decorated and landscaped place high on a hill with a fantasic view of the bay. You can even just see the tops of the Golden Gate bridge towers when it's clear. l also met his daughter Gail and other little scrapper of a dog Russell. Rick left the next day for a trip to Alaska, and after a quick tour of the house, and a spin around Vallejo, I was alone to pet sit the dogs, 2 cats, and lots of plants to water. That night there was a beautiful sunset, which turned out to happen just about every night there. Man, that house is amazing; it would be worth it just for the sunsets there alone
I met up with old friends Bruce & Loree, who took me up to the nearby Napa wine country where we met another friend Cathy. We had a great lunch at a beautiful winery in Vacaville. Then we stopped by Muir woods and later the beach, where Honey had a great time exploring.

They also had a dinner party where I got to meet some of their friends, including their new puppy "Shiloh", an adorable little black German shepherd they just adopted. And of course old Tosca was there, their venerable little shar-pei/beagle mix that they've had since before even moving out there.

Another day cousin Chuck and I took the ferry out to Alcatraz, my first time there. They have a great audiotour of the whole prison complex-- very enlightening. Outside it was a sunny day and there's a fantastic view of the city from the island. Back in the city I had to get a chowder-in-a-breadbowl, and see the famous sea lions of pier 39, two things that are must-dos in San Fran. Check out this handsome guy preening in front of the camera-- no, not Chuck, I meant the sea lion!
There's still a lot I haven't seen or done there, but I should have lots of time, as I have decided to move out there. I flew back to pack up my stuff, and soon I'll hit the road and drive back out there. I should be just in time for the fall festivals.