Category Archives: Overview

Taking stock of one mad trip

It is often like that with travel. You feel somewhere between amused and bored as you wander around a strange faraway destination. And yet as you look back at that moment just a couple of months later from another place thousands of kilometres away, the very fact of having physically occupied a small piece of the Earth out there seems surreal.

That is how I feel now that I am back in Europe, as I look back at my trip around Latin America and the Caribbean. So many places discovered, so many new (and old) people met, so many impressions and events… and all of that in such a short timespan!

Sometimes I think back about my days before this crazy two-year-long trip and it feels to me as if all of it was in another life. I have changed so much, experienced so much and learnt so much. And simply time-wise it feels like a temporal abyss separates me from that day in 2013 when I left Brussels.

Certainly it was the most intense period of my life.

As for you, my dear blog, I must apologise to you that I haven’t spent much time with you in these last months. You are probably well and truly upset with me. Yes, other causes have consumed my energy. I could probably write 25 posts about all the places I visited during that time. And in the back of my mind I still have that idea, that need – to write about these places. Now that I will not write about them day to day, it will be a retrospective look. But how surreal and magical it feels to take that look.
Looking down at Minsk

Best photos

This week I allocated one full day in order go to through all the images I’ve ever made and pick out the best ones. My actual goal was to create a portfolio of best images. I’d already started this work before as I had identified all the best portraits and even asked for feedback from critically and artsy minded friends. When you do the selection yourself, the challenge is of course to abstract yourself from your memories of making the photos – memories about the person, about the shoot, about your mood, your conscious creative choices – and only concentrate on the merits of the image itself. Not an easy thing to do. Of course you also want to have a certain variety in the selection – if all your best photos come from the same situation, that looks iffy.

To go through all of your images sounds like an easy task in theory, but in practice it is anything but. From my DSLR cameras alone I have by now over 35’000 images. Indeed even visually to go through all this on a computer screen, assuming you take 3 seconds per image, would take 29 hours. So I took shortcuts: I’d only look at the very best images, the ones I’ve already published on the blog or the ones that I’d given a high rating in Lightroom.

The result is out there – I’ve created two “portfolio” collections: People and Places.

As a side project, I decided to also choose (somewhat arbitrarily, of course) the best ten images for 2014. Just as a way of looking back and of gauging my progress in photography. Here they are:

Singapore, Marina Bay
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Twenty best experiences of 2014

What does it mean to travel for a year around the world? At the end of 2013 I wrote a selection of 20 best experiences of the first part of the trip. As the year 2014 was rolling in, I was seriously asking myself: could I possibly surpass 2013?

Today my answer is: absolutely yes! This was a tremendous year full of events and impressions and new people and places. Indeed so intense was the year, that as I re-read some of my early posts of 2014, I feel like they might have happened in another life eons ago.

Here are the twenty most powerful experiences of 2014:

20. Helicoptering to the top of a glacier
It was my lifelong fantasy to fly in a helicopter, and what a spectacular way to do it! In New Zealand’s Franz Josef, a helicopter took us up all the way to the top of a glacier, inaccessible otherwise. An otherworldly walk in the land of ice and light inside a deep glacier valley followed.

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Annual review 2014

Every year at the end of December I complete the Annual Review exercise. I first got an idea for this tremendously useful annual ritual from Chris Guillebeau’s blog. This is the fourth time I’m doing the exercise: I’ve reviewed 2011, 2012, 2013 and now 2014; the 2012 review was even published on this blog. Below is the (somewhat abridged) review of 2014.

1. The first part of the review is to ask myself these two questions: What went well this year? and What did not go well?

What went well in 2014?

Looking back, 2014 was probably the most amazing year of my life. I spent the whole year literally on the road continuing my Round the World trip that I started back in July 2013. During 2014 I visited 29 countries, many of them for the first time. A whole list of incredible experiences happened on the way, of which the most memorable were:

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Top 10 most visited entries

Recently I was looking at the statistics of my journal as I can follow it using Google Analytics. I was surprised to find out that the most popular – most visited – entries were quite different in the English and the Russian versions of the blog. Here are the top 10 most visited entries in the English version:

1. From the Japanese notebook: 28 impressions of Japan
2. 20 most powerful experiences
3. The Why
4. Yogyakarta
5. Buenos Aires part 2
6. Hidden Bangkok
7. Walk around Osaka
8. Mendoza 4: Self-guided wine bike tour
9. Asunción
10. I am a Death Road Survivor

I removed of course the “functional” pages – the Archives and the About page. Still, very honestly I am puzzled as to why exactly these posts made the top 10. Particularly as in the Russian version only nr 2 and nr 10 are present as well in the top 10 – on completely different positions. It is normal that the posts from earlier in the trip would be more represented in the most visited list – people have had more time to stumble upon them accidentally via google searches etc. But still, what is so special about the walk about Osaka that it would be so much visited? These little mysteries of blogging fascinate me.

20 most powerful experiences of the trip in 2013

My trip around the world kicked off on 5 July 2013. In half a year on the road I have crossed two oceans, visited 17 countries and gone through thousands of kilometres on a plane, on a boat, on a bus and on foot. And it’s only the beginning! Right now I am in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where I am doing my annual review for the year 2013 and making my plans for 2014. Here are the 20 brightest experiences of the journey so far.

20. A football match at 3850 metres
Only the most particular circumstances can force a lifelong tennis fan to take part in a football match. Such circumstances transpired on the island of Amantaní on Lake Titicaca, at 3850 metres of altitude. When having run just a couple of metres you feel like your throat has been scorched with fire. And we won that match against a team of young Brits!

Continue reading 20 most powerful experiences of the trip in 2013

From the Japanese notebook: 28 impressions of Japan

Japan is a very strange country. During my trip around Japan I kept writing down in my red notebook the details of its weirdness. Here is a random list…

1. The white gloves, the epitome of elegance, that are worn by the drivers of buses and taxis. With their hands covered in these white gloves they swiftly operate the wheel and the luggage…

2. In many points of major Japanese cities very helpfully you can find the area plans, often featuring an English translation. But it took me several days to decipher the logic of the orientation of these maps. They are not oriented according to any cardinal direction! It turns out that the up-down axis of the map corresponds to the very direction in which you are looking when you face this map. You have to marvel at the utter precision which was necessary to manufacture these maps so that they correspond so precisely to their rather random-looking position in some metro tunnel or on a street corner. Anyhow, this positioning of the map threw me off every time – ­my European brain is too used to put every map into the North-South axis.

3. An entirely different logic of house numbers. We are used to a street with numbers growing along the two sides, usually odd numbers on one side and even on the other. The Japanese city is divided first into areas with names (sort of like our street names). Then this area is further subdivided into numbered sub-areas, usually delimited by actual physical streets or pathways. However there is no particular reason why such and such sub-areas bears a particular number. Inside the sub-area the houses are further numbered, usually in the order as you would encounter them if you were to go around the sub-area, but not necessarily. For example, the address of the ryokan where I stayed in Tokyo was as follows:1-30-12 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan 111-0032. This is to say that it was house nr 12 in sub-area nr 30 in the first Asakusa area. This is how it looks on the map: address.

4. Coming from the United States, several times I critically misunderstood the Japanese traffic lights and entered the road while the cars were moving. In Japan the red lights is shown by two parallel vertical bars. As the green light approaches, the bars decrease in size – ­this way you can always estimate how long you still have to wait. However in America the red parallel bars blinking mean that the red light is just starting and in principle pedestrians can finish the crossing.

5. A fascinating way of indicating time. Instead of saying, that say an onsen is open until 2 am, the Japanese will write: open until 26:00. 25:00 would correspond to 1 am and 28:00 to 4 am etc. I find this very logical indeed.

6. The direction of reading books – ­similarly to Arabic and Hebrew books, the Japanese books are read from left to right. This means that the first page is where you would expect the last. Even opening a Japanese magazine, you have to adjust.

7. Since we talk directions, of course the Japanese could be like everybody else. They just had to drive on the left.

8. In Japan you are not supposed to tip. This culture eliminates all uncertainty. A paradise for introverts.

9. Indeed it is a paradise for introverts in a number of ways. I was speechless when I first saw a Japanese bus – ­where you do not have to have a neighbour at all as all seats are separated by a passage!

10. You cannot go around the Japanese food. I will write about it separately. Here I will just mention the strangest dish ever. This title must go to nattō beans – ­slimy beans fermented in a special bacteria. They say that this is the dish that they use to test if a foreigner (gaijin) has really adapted to life in Japan. Because the beans look really disgusting. I tried them. They taste pretty funky. Not to belabour the point, this is by far the weirdest food I’ve ever eaten.

11. The Japanese sweets are also pretty weird. Often they are not sweet at all. Most sweets are indeed made from bean pasta!

12. After a while you realise that most Japanese dishes are borrowed either from their neighbours the Chinese or directly from the Europeans. But the longer the isolated Japanese had to alter these dishes, the less recognisable they become. Take Japanese pizza – ­nothing like the original.

13. Japan is choke full of coffee shops. These often look very sophisticated, even glamorous. But what I found most surprising about them was the fact that in each café inevitably there was a partition for smokers, and indeed it was full of smoking people – ­often there were more smokers than non-smokers.

14. The Japanese are quite obsessed by all things French. For them French is the ultimate synonym of elegance and refinement. And to be frank, the fantasy objects made à la française in Japan are already so excessively elegant, that oftentimes in my opinion they exceed and surpass the supposed original. Thus I am not surprised by the stories about how the Japanese are shocked when they visit Paris, seeing how it is nothing like they imagined, but in fact rather dirty and brash. I profited fully from this Japanese obsession and visited regularly a coffee shop network called Vie de France, where you could have wonderful pain au raisin and of course proper latte – ­and thus to escape the crazy Japanese sweets for a bit.

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Pink tide

Leaving Latin America, I want to comment on a phenomenon that seems to be sweeping this part of the world. It is the so called pink tide, the simultaneous occurrence of a left swing in the politics of the most countries on this continent. It is pink of course because bloody red is somehow appropriated by the communists, whereas the socialists can be safely painted in pink. Latin America has been under robust American control for many years, belonged to the immediate American sphere of interests. But especially in the most recent years, after the end of the Cold War, the situation here changed radically and one after another pieces of the domino fell as socialist or left-wing presidents won elections.

There are 12 independent countries in South America. Today there are left-wing governments in 9 of them, and Michelle Bachelet just won the first round in presidential election in Chile and is likely to win the second, making it 10 out of 12.

This is how it looks:

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Life on the road

My journey started exactly a month ago, on 5 July. Here are some observations on the everyday life on the road during this month.

One of the loveliest aspects of life on the road in Latin America is of course the chance to practice Spanish.

In Yucatan and Guatemala to understand what people say was actually very easy – I guess the reason was that Spanish was not native for many of them. It’s a good way to get into the groove.

In Peru, especially in Lima, I realised in my first days that I had almost no idea what people were saying – so fast and so particular was their speech. But over time I got used to it. In Arequipa, Cusco and Puno things were a lot easier – a lot slower pace, a lot easier to understand and to speak. It is of course the best way to improve your skill, to immerse yourself in the language.

In Latin America they use a lot of words and expressions which are understandable, but to which I am not used: disculpe to say excuse me, con mucho gusto! to say you’re welcome, any young man is addressed as jóven, generally any person at any moment is addressed to as amigo. It’s fun and it makes you feel like you’ve touched a living language.

Money matters
Major mixing of banknotes and coins in my purse: euros, dollars, quetzals, nuevos soles, pesos, bolivianos, laris, and even some Estonian sents as a memento…

Continue reading Life on the road