Monday, December 13, 2010

Travel Tip: Beyond the Flight, Rental Car, and Hotel

It's taken a little while for me to realize this, but when I tell most people, especially Americans who haven't traveled much, about my trip, they tend to assume a couple things about how it worked. The assumptions kind of make sense, but they're mostly wrong.

They're based on the way that most Americans travel long distances: you book your flight a month or more in advance, you get a rental car so that you can get around, and you book a hotel room based on how plan on staying.

Since that's how they travel, they tend to assume that over the course of 19 months and seven continents, I was continuously doing all of these things. Nope. I had a handful of flights over the course of the trip-- not many more than most college students do if they fly home for school breaks. I might have reserved myself a hotel room twice. I'm not even certain of that. I never rented a car.

When you think about it, it's a little absurd to think that the flight-rental car-hotel reservation method is so predominant that nobody seems to know another way to travel. I'll admit that routine probably affords the most creature comforts for those who have the money, but it's also probably the most expensive, restrictive, and stressful way you can plan a trip. Even if I'd had the millions of dollars required to do my trip around the world that way, I doubt I would have ever done it.

I think a lot of the strength of this travel regime is that it gives the illusion of security. You'll be guaranteed a way in and back home, at good place to sleep, and a way to get from one to the other. So long as your flight isn't delayed/canceled, your hotel is as advertised, and you can spring for all the little surprise fees etc at the rental car counter.

But I think the other real strength this idea has is that it's all these people know. So here is an incomplete list of alternatives. I'm not saying you have to do things one way or another, but I think more people would travel if they knew more about cheaper and more rewarding things they can use:

Instead of buying tickets months in advance, dealing with airport security, baggage restrictions etc of flying try:

Train. In many countries, this is THE way to travel. In Europe and Japan it's often about the same price as flying, but elsewhere it's a bargain and you can buy your ticket the day of travel without any price repercussions. In some places it even rewards you for buying at the last minute (Trans-Siberian rail, anyone?) You see more of your destination, you can stretch your legs and walk around without fear of turbulence, and you'll meet tons of people. Maybe it's just me, but I almost always end up getting free food from fellow passengers, too. Just bring some snacks to share in return. Check for good train resources.

Bus. This is how the rest of the world travels by default. You can buy your ticket five minutes before boarding. In developed countries, if you do it in advance, you can pay as little as US$1 for your fare. It's slow, and a bit more restrictive than train travel in that you can't walk around, but if you're someone who can sleep in a car during road trips, bus may be just the method for you. And in the US, forget the stupid urban myths you've heard about Greyhound-- Bolt bus, Megabus, and Go Bus are just a few of the cheap, reliable companies that are very safe and free of the whatever weird characters you're so scared of.

Boat. These are slower than you probably think they are, but boats are looking for passengers and often crews, and they don't always expect the crew to be experienced. Make sure you meet the captain and other crew first (remember to always ask for permission to board before boarding a boat, it's considered rude to hop on without doing so first) and think hard about whether these are people you want to spend all day, every day with for the length of the voyage. Look at and even Craigslist listings for crew.

Rideshare. Check websites to find someone on a road trip who needs company and some extra money for gas. Multiple websites exist for this but I'm not yet aware of a comprehensive global site. is probably the closest, though it is quite Europe-centric.

Now instead of the hassle, fees, insurance and licensing headaches of renting a car, try...

Public Transit. It is much more widespread than you think. Even if it's just a rowboat or a van that comes by every day with some dude sticking out the window yelling their destination, you can find public transit anywhere. You might think it's slower, but it's actually often faster than fighting traffic, finding directions, and trying to figure out traffic laws that a local bus driver grew up knowing. Like which side of the road to drive on. It's also a lot cheaper.

Bicycle. This depends a lot on local traffic and weather, but a bike rental is a quick, cheap and easy way to get around most places. Insist on a helmet and lock with your bike, no matter how crazy the locals think you are for doing so.

Walking. You'll see more, you'll get more exercise, and you'll open yourself up to a lot more opportunities than you ever could inside of your rental car by virtue of meeting people and smelling/hearing interesting things and following them. You'll remember more than you would have otherwise as well. Once you get used to it, you'll be amazed how fast and far you can go by foot.

Finally, instead of booking a hotel room, locking yourself into solitude and constrained dates, try...

Connections. Tell everyone about your trip. Someone will almost certainly know someone else who can either put you up or knows someone else who can. One of my most enjoyable stays anywhere was in Hong Kong, where I spent a week with my mother's second-cousin's ex-girlfriend's sister and brother in law. Don't ask outright for a place to stay, but do not be ashamed to say you'd like to meet people. Most people will invite you by reflex alone, if they possibly can. And bring a gift or take them out for a drink/meal sometime. You'll get a free place to stay, and some orientation to your destination by locals.

Hostels. Contrary to popular opinion, in the vast majority of cases hostels are clean, you can get a private room, you can stay all day, you don't have to be a member of any organization, and you don't have to be a certain age to stay there. You will meet far more travelers than you ever would in a hotel. Most travelers you meet will be really interesting people from all over the world. You'll almost always have access to a kitchen and several dozen strangers who would love to cook with you. Plus there are discount activities, tours, and guides available to the destination. I often find that most hostels are better located than most hotels, especially if you like seeing places on foot. Check Hostelling International,, and This website is revolutionizing budget travel. It's only been around for a few years, but it's already at more than 2 million members scattered across virtually every country in the world, and it's growing daily by the thousands. The idea is simple, you make a profile, you get other members who trust you to write you a reference or two (which appears on your public profile and that you cannot edit), and you can then search for other people who live in your destination who have done the same. If you like their profile and they have been endorsed by enough people to make you feel comfortable, you can ask if you can crash on their couch/spare bed/floor. If they like your profile and see you come with good references, they can accept. The result? A free place to stay, and a local host to guide you around. Make sure you bring a gift or buy them a meal/drink. That's actually only the beginning-- there are international meetups, parties, road trips, and a lot more all based on this growing online community of travelers. Once again, it's all at

Apartment Swap Craigslist and other sites are good places to look for apartment swap opportunities if you have a pad you'd like to exchange for someone else's for a week or so. Search for apartment swap and your city of choice, or if you're feeling gutsy, just search for the the city you live in, and see who wants to come to you, and where they can give you a place in exchange.

All these and more can be found in any good guidebook on your destination. I have the most experience with the budget end of things, including Let's Go, Lonely Planet's Shoestring series, and Rough guides. If you have a slightly higher budget, I can also recommend Rick Steve's guides.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Travel Tip: How to Access Your Money While Traveling Internationally

This post isn't going to be about budgets (that might come later). This post is going to be about how you can get cash in different countries. This will be particularly helpful to those who haven't yet left on their trip and are just now planning how they can best get at their cash while abroad.

As an American, I will be writing this from the perspective of someone from the USA. However, you'll find that while some of the particulars in how to prepare for a trip at home are different in different countries, once you're abroad, the principles are all pretty much the same.

Here's what I recommended that you carry with you:

-Credit and Debit Cards with Good Foreign Exchange Rates (One Visa and One MasterCard at least). This is the modern way to pay for things internationally. Visa and MasterCard debit cards work in ATMs in major cities across almost every country in the world, including Syria, Ethiopia, and other places where, if you search online, you'll find warnings claiming they don't work. If you've read more of my blog, you know how many countries I've traveled across. The only one that wouldn't let me take money out of an ATM was Rwanda, and that was only because I had a MasterCard. Visa works in ATMs there just fine. This just meant I had to go inside a Rwandan bank for a withdrawal, plus a fee. When you use your card in a local ATM, you will always have the option to operate the ATM in English, and you will always be given local currency (unless you specifically ask for something else).

Here's the big catch: most major banks slap massive fees on these transactions. Chase, for example, charges $3 for each withdrawal, plus 5% commission on all withdrawals. You can do a lot better than that.

How? By researching better options. I recommended getting a credit card and small checking account with a smaller bank or a credit union, making sure to ask them about what they charge for foreign transactions. Since I'm from Seattle, I use Boeing Employees Credit Union. Last time I checked, their credit card charged 1% on foreign charges, and their debit card charged 1% on ATM withdrawals. Much better.

In fact, if you look hard enough, you might be able to do better than that. For example, if you or a close family have any ties with the military, you can apply for a checking account with USAA-- not only are there no fees for foreign withdrawals, but they refund any other fees charged by the bank you draw the money from. That's unheard of and amazing. Rumor has it Charles Schwab has a similar deals for people considering opening up new accounts with them (the hope being that you use their investment services when you get home, since you'll already have an account with them).

Once again, make sure you have at least one each of Visa and MasterCard, between your credit and debit cards. Visa seems to be slightly more common abroad, but really you should be fine with either. American express will work in a handful of other countries, not very reliably. Discover card is not going to help you.

Finally, don't keep both cards in the same place. If what you keep one in is stolen, you're probably going to need the other one right away.

-American Dollars. This applies to citizens of other countries as well. American Dollars are the closest thing there is to international currency. Euros are the perpetual second, and also not a bad thing to have around in cash. British Pounds are a distant third. I always kept a stash of US$200 for tight spots. Part of it went in my money belt, the other part in a hidden place in my backpack. You will end up spending this at times. The way you can replenish it depends on which countries you're going through. Sometimes it makes sense to change your leftover currency back into dollars, but more often than not it's better to spend it on something useful and withdraw local currency in the next country from an ATM, which will probably be located very near the border. In several countries you will find that you can withdraw American dollars from the ATMs (Hong Kong, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cambodia, and Ecuador all come to mind).

-Phone Numbers to Contact Your Bank Internationally. Most banks offer numbers that will accept international collect calls for travelers in tight spot. You'll need this in emergencies. Keep it where you keep other documents, like your travelers insurance (you do have travelers insurance, don't you?)

And that's it!

...but wait, some of you are saying. What about travelers checks? The answer is, in my opinion, don't bother. They used to be the way to carry money around abroad. And they do still have more security than cash-- if they're stolen you can get a refund, provided you still have the stubs, and they can't be used by anyone but you. The problem is, nobody uses them anymore. This means that in 90% of the world they aren't accepted for anything, and in the remaining 10%, the exchange rates you get for them are terrible. Add to the fact that most places charge you a fee to even issue them, and I think you have a losing proposition overall. At best, they're a good emergency stash. I tried using them in India, and I don't plan on ever using them again.

Oh and one more item. Some people talk about pre-paid ATM Visa cards. They go by a variety of names. They sound like a neat idea. Basically it's a disposable ATM card with a set amount of cash tied to it. The problem is that the ones I've seen get even worse rates than you get from major banks for debit cards. Maybe there are better ones now, but I have yet to see them. Do a little research. If they charge you more than 3% on foreign transactions, or charge you any kinds of flat fees for anything, don't use them.

And that's a wrap! I may follow this up with more in depth tips for money management while abroad (how to most effectively have a parent or other highly trusted person to help at home, plus online banking). But this should help with the access-to-cash question.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


I came home from a regular night out in New York. The NYC couchsurfers go to a place in the village called "Solas" on Thursdays. $4 mojitos, margaritas, sangria, and sex on the beach, being sipped by about 50-60 couchsurfers upstairs with masking-tape-and-sharpie-nametags from a few dozen countries.

Around 1am my friend, Barry, dropped me off after the straight shot up 1st Ave to Harlem. It's surprisingly easy to drive from 14th St. to 118th St after midnight during the week. The lights are synchronized, and the only other traffic is cabs. They drive like cabs, but when it's just them, they aren't quite as aggravating.

So I walked up to my apartment, let myself in, scanned my mail, dropped my keys, and plugged my phone into my speakers for a little music. I put on Jamie Cullum's Catching Tales album, without thinking about it much, then wandered over to the fridge to pull out my massive Costco tub of hummus from inside and my sack of pita bread from the top.

Then I started listening to the music. That album was the first one I downloaded while traveling. I spent the first year or so without any of my own music. I didn't have my iPod. I'd decided I wanted to listen to the world around me, and the cheap FM radio I'd brought with me. The radio didn't work out that great for various reasons (chief among them the fact that when I most wanted to listen was on buses between cities... where there weren't any radio stations). So by the time I got to Croatia, I decided to download a couple things to my little laptop. Jamie Cullum's Catching Tales was the first thing I got.

And there I was, hearing that music again. Only I wasn't in my apartment in Spanish Harlem. I was in Sarajevo, in an uber-sketchy 5 euro hostel room I had to myself, despite the fact that there were twelve beds there. They were stacked in threes-- a top bunk, a middle bunk, and a bottom bunk. It was Halloween, and I had a party to go to, and no costume. My laptop was on and playing "Photograph" by Jamie Cullum. And while the laundry I'd done in the sink was drying across on the elastic line I'd strung between two bunks, I spotted the container of toilet paper rolls on the busted shelf above the busted sink. Voila, halloween costume.

And then I remembered that I was not in the Balkans, but leaning wistfully against my fridge in New York, with hummus dripping down my bread onto my hand.

It's a lot like having been in a wonderful relationship that's ended. After a while, you move on. You're doing your new thing. You've changed a bit. You're happy with the new you. But every once in a while one of those songs you used to listen to comes on, and it takes a little bit out of you. For that minute or so, all you want is to be back then, they way things were, for just a little while.

Acting in New York is a dream. And things are going pretty well so far. I'm going to auditions. I'm acting in a student film. I just had a free class with a great Shakespeare coach. I've got a deal on a new set of headshots. I've just been invited to be a regular blogger with Life here is working out.

But sometimes all I want is to be back on the road again. The way I had been, the way it used to be.

So, as a side project, I'm starting to do the next best thing. Writing about my travels. Several people over the years have told me I should write a book. I think I'm going to. I've batted a query letter around for a while, and now I'm putting together a book proposal to send to agents.

My basic premise will be a bit like this blog. Mostly stories of my travels, with a few helpful tips and hints thrown in. My goal is not just to tell my story, but to inspire other people to travel. Not just little tours of western Europe. I mean big travel. Wander with penguins travel. Hitchhike Tanzania travel. Get stranded on Caribbean island and volunteer at a hospital travel.

I will say that I'm not planning on making a guidebook-- there are people who have been backpacking for decades who have already written guidebooks. Saying I could do one better I think would be presuming a bit much. What I have that's unique are my stories, perspective, and personal experience.

But that's just my idea. What's yours? I'm interested in feedback here. If you're still reading this blog, you probably know my story well enough to have an idea. What kind of book would you most be interested in buying, given the trip I have to draw from?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Travel Tip: Stay Safe at Night

This is a something I get asked about a great deal. How do you stay safe in a strange place? the answers seem like common sense to those who already know them, so often when you ask, you get not very helpful answers like "just... don't be stupid." So I'm going to try to break things down a bit. If you live in a city, some of this is going to be pretty familiar to you already.

First, the basics. You are not in as much danger as you probably think you are. I've heard inexperienced travelers tell me a lot of ridiculous horror stories of shooting, kidnappings, and random killings of tourists. This is very unlikely to happen to you in the vast majority of places you will visit. The places where it does happen are the ones that are very hard to travel to, and where you probably don't want to be right now anyway. Like Baghdad or Mogadishu. I can guarantee you that if you come to Beijing, you are not going to be stuffed into an unmarked car by people looking to harvest your organs. I hope you're laughing, but somebody I talked to was seriously concerned about this possibility.

What you are in danger of are scams (which I'll cover in another post) and theft. Possibly via mugging, depending on the area. Also, women, I hate to say it, but you are more likely to be targeted, not just for theft, but for unwanted sexual attention. However, in most places you are not in any greater danger than you would be in your home city. So don't panic.

The places where you are in the most danger are in very very packed crowds (as in you are literally squeezing through people) and at night. Since you're probably going to be traveling through more nights than crowds, I'm going to focus on how to keep safe at night.

The basics, you probably already know:
-Walking alone is not ideal. Walking drunk is not ideal. Walking alone and drunk is just dumb. Don't do it.
-Act like you know where you are going, even if you don't
-Be aware of your surroundings- don't look at the ground all the time or talk on your cell phone
-Look relaxed but alert-- panicky people look like they're good targets because they probably don't know the area, and might be carrying valuables.
-Don't access an ATM at night. It makes it obvious that you're carrying cash when you walk away.
-Stick to well-lit areas with some people walking around, and give generous distance to dark, shadowy hiding places
-Don't pull out or show anything of great value (i.e. cameras, jewelry, money belts, or iPods)
-If you are confronted and told to hand over your valuables, don't argue or act like a hero, hand it over.

Now, here are a few slightly less well known ideas I liked to use to stay safe.

If you don't know where you are and don't know how to make it look like you know where you are, pick a random point a couple blocks distant, and walk to it, purposefully. Once you get to it, choose another and do the same thing. Keep doing this until you find a well-lit populated place of business where you can pull out a map or get directions without problems.

Plan ahead of time when you're going to need a map. If you have to pull out a map, make sure it's folded down to the part you need so that you can pull it out and have it in one hand without unfolding. Basically, make it look like it's something other than a map. Ideally, you'll have already done this before walking out into the street.

Use reflections. Shop windows, car mirrors, and anything glass are all your friends, because they can give you a view of what's going on behind you, without you twisting and turning. If you still have sunglasses on your person, you can pretend to inspect the lenses-- the curved lens is a great way to see what's behind you.

If you suspect that someone is following you, walk all the way around a city block until you're going the same direction you were originally. If they're still behind you, they are following you. Step inside a shop, hotel lobby, or any open, lit building with someone working inside, and tell the person that you are being followed.

If you keep a wallet in your pocket, keep it in the front pocket. If you must keep it in the back, tie a couple rubber bands around it so that you can more easily feel if someone tries to slip it out.

If you are in a place where mugging is reported to be common, carry a second wallet with a small amount of cash and some expired cards inside it. If you are mugged, throw this wallet to the ground and run, if you can.

Finally, use the city around you. The vast majority of people wherever you are is trustworthy and hates thieves and criminals more than they could ever hate you, regardless of your demographic. The vast majority of the city is your friend, and criminals are running scared of being caught by your friend. This is something that will help you stay calm if you're caught in a situation that feels unsafe.

I hope that helps. Safe travels!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

International City

I exited the subway at Grand Central station and nearly steamrolled a 5-foot-tall lady selling Mexican flags. 'Of course,' I realized. 'Mexican Independence Day.' People like this woman were all over midtown chanting 'Bandera, bandera!' and waving flags for sale. Men, women and children were sporting green national soccer jerseys and waving flags.

Two blocks later, I'd walked into a Turkish street fair. Baklava, cured meats, and photos of Cappadocia, Istanbul, and Ephesus everywhere. Turkish music on the loudspeakers.

Five minutes after that, I was buying computer parts from a man in a yarmulke, in a long line of men wearing yarmulkes, comparing notes on the exchange rate between the US Dollar and the Israeli Shekel. After making my purchase, the attendant noticed I'd given a Seattle billing zip code.

"What brings you to New York?"

"I just moved here, actually."

"Really? Welcome to New York! This city will chew you up and spit you out again."

I grinned. We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?

I came to this city because, among other reasons, it seems like the most natural place for a world traveler to settle for a bit. Everyone from everywhere comes to New York if they can, and they always they bring a little of their home with them. So you can walk three blocks and cross a Mexican parade, a Turkish Street fair, and then emerge on the other end right onto Broadway. The one all the other "Broadway"s are named after. I can see echoes of the world everywhere in this town. It's like noticing an author hiding Easter Egg references to past books in a later story. A bonus for those who know the other parts.

But while I'm enjoying the throwbacks to everywhere else, I'm still having fun with the classic New York moments. Walking back from my free* yoga class, my first ever, I came up Broadway and saw that I was behind two very very drunk guys, straight out of a frat party. They staggered across a street against a red light. One was slightly ahead of the other, and a taxi coming up at speed honked at him.

The first guy kept going, but the second guy stepped in front of the cab, turned unsteadily to face it, and stopped. The taxi skidded to a halt about half a foot from his legs. The man looked the driver in the eye, then very slowly and deliberately bent over and kissed the hood. Then he walked his way.

Maybe you can find that somewhere else, but I've only ever seen it here.
*and by free we mean $2 mat rental. Plus donation. (Plus, in my case, $2 extra because the route between the studio and my subway stop is intersected by The Strand bookstore's $1 book racks outside). Check it out: Yoga to the People. I wanted something cheap to correct my posture and make me more flexible. I think I might just become a regular.

This post cross-posted to Joel's new blog about life as an aspiring actor and writer, Constant Audition.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A New Chapter, A New Blog

Apologies for the delay. I'm going to be doing something a bit different from here on out. What you see to the left is my new home town: New York City.

I had the opportunity to take a month-long pass with JetBlue airlines to travel around the country. I was sorely tempted. I've missed my travels, and this little trip around has only made me miss them more. But I've turned it down.

I'm here in NYC to do something different. I'm going to act. And yes, you're still going to get to read about it. But not here.

JTrek is, always has been, and always will be a travel blog. If I hit the road again, I might have new stories to share here, and I do have some periodic travel tips to share about travel safety, budgeting, and more to share here. But the juicy stuff about acting, writing, and living in New York, is not going here.

It's going to my new blog: Constant Audition.

Constant Audition will be a place for me to share stories about what it's really like out here, doing what something lot of people dream about doing but never actually try. I don't know what to expect, whatever it is, I'll do my best to make it interesting. If you've read this blog much, you can judge for yourself how good I am at that.

So, I hope you've enjoyed what I've written here, and will enjoy what I will write there. All the best!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The American Capital

This was the last stop for this trip before moving into my new home. It was the only one where I wasn't visiting relatives.

I've been to Washington DC twice before, once when I was ten, sightseeing with my parents, and once when I was seventeen, looking at colleges.

The place feels like a stage. I spent most of my time exploring the National Mall. The whole thing is open to the skies. It's a combination of the height limit on the buildings (nothing can be taller than the Capitol), the wide, right angled streets, and the low-flying airplanes following the Potomac River to National Airport, as per security regulations.

After having seen a lot of other national capitals around the world, it's a strange feeling seeing and comparing your own to everyone else's. I'd have these funny moments from other places. Flags flying that I remember flying in their own countries. A tour guide saying vaguely that the capitol's dome was designed after one on a cathedral in Russia, he didn't know which. Then me realizing that I did know which, and that I had taken several pictures of it in St. Petersburg. Flashbacks like these.

Above all, DC feels American. That's weirdly not something I could have said before, the last couple times I was here. Having been away for a long time and looking back through a lot of lenses, I now have a much clearer idea of what we Americans have in common and what makes us different from other people.

Politicians throw a lot of rhetoric around about "freedom" and "democracy," but those aren't unique to us, and anyway, they're pretty nebulous concepts when you think about them, especially how they're used today. But there's one thing you take for granted growing up here, and that is a fierce sense of individualism. An American believes that s/he is in control of his/her destiny. If an American succeeds, it's due almost solely to their hard work. If an American fails, it's their fault. And encroaching on any American's ability to do something they want to do is a serious offense, usually accompanied with heated statements about "rights."

We're cheerful. Sometimes a bit absurdly so. "Good" is the default answer for "how are you?" I don't just mean that to say we've got good lives, I mean that even when we're not so happy, we tell people we are, almost out of habit. We smile when we meet new people. And by the way, our customer service is legendary (though people are appalled at the tips we expect).

We have some pretty strange ideas about guns. We eat huge portions of food. None of us admits to liking small talk, but we're a lot more comfortable being chatty than silent. And more than most nations, we, as a country, like to put on a show. Love or hate us, nobody ignores us. Contrary to popular belief, we're not dumber on average than any other nationality. It's just that dumb Americans know how to attract a lot more attention than dumb people just about anywhere else. We make TV shows so the rest of us can laugh at the stupidest among us, and then export the shows to other countries, where they watch it and say "gosh, so that's what Americans are like." It's not true, it's just our flair for the dramatic-- if we're gonna be dumb, you can bet we'll be entertaining while being dumb.

All this is reflected in the green center of this city, our capital. The place we send representatives from every corner of our country to argue over what we should be doing, just so that we can deride them for how little they're doing and how much of what they do annoys us. But they do it dramatically on big stages of marble, broadcast to the world. For most everyone here, it's all business in this town.

Except when it isn't. Like when a couple of my friends from college led me to an unmarked apartment building, nodded to a guy standing outside, and were led into hidden bar serving some amazing cocktails. Or when we all competed in a pub trivia contest under the team name "The Last Time I Pulled Out Of Iraq, I Hit Herzegovina." Then again, that might tell you more about my friends here than the city.

So, another fast visit down. I write while this sitting on a bus to New York City. By the time you read this I will have arrived, and I'll have something of an announcement to make. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Part 4: The Lees

Back at what we call "the little house" at the Putnam Ranch in Washington, there's a tiny embroidered thing in a frame that says something like "To be a Virginian, whether by birth, marriage, or even on one's mother's side is a passport to any country, and a benediction from Almighty God." That almost certainly came from my grandmother. My grandmother was left-handed, a twin, and Virginian, all things of which she was very proud. Especially the last one.

My grandpa likes to tell the story something like this: he was a soldier in World War II, on leave in Hampton, Virginia. As usual for those days, a local family came out to the church and invited soldiers back for a home-cooked meal. My grandpa went home with the nice family named Lee, and found that they had some daughters they were trying to get rid of. So, he took one of them.

The rest of the siblings, including her little brother, Henry, pictured above, spent most of their lives back east in Virginia. But Henry, himself a fighter pilot in the war, and great lover of road trips, has always been an active part of the Putnam family out west. My last opportunity to return the favor and come see the Lees in Virginia was almost fifteen years ago.

A side note. For those of you who know your American history and are putting two and two together, when I talk about the Lees of Virginia, yes, they are the Lees you're thinking of. And for the record I'd just like to say that my ancestor was asked by Lincoln to head the Union Army, and only sided with the confederacy because he couldn't bear the idea of fighting the people he grew up with in his home. Anyway, that was a long time ago, things are little different in 2010.

One thing about this branch of the family-- we keep track of ourselves. As my cousin, Regina, drove me around Hampton, she started pointing out the street named after our cousins, the house the belonged to our other cousins, the cemetery where half of our family is buried outside the 400-year old church where we have a reserved pew, where my grandparents were married and my mom and uncles were baptized. The same one where a few years ago, my grandpa visited, got to talking to someone, and told them that he and his wife had been married there sixty years before. The man responded that he'd been there and pointed to the pew where he'd been sitting for the ceremony.

Henry has a house full of history. I mean that about as literally as you can take it. I've never seen a house piled with so much old stuff. I'm six feet tall, and there were stacks and boxes I couldn't see the tops of. As we were leaving, Regina pointed to the back corner of the covered porch and said "look, there's his canon." I spent a good five seconds looking for a camera before I noticed the spoked wooden wheel peeking out from under the piles of other stuff. The one attached to the canon. The kind you fire small cannonballs with.

Henry himself is a talker. He has his way of doing things, and his way of thinking about things. Not everything he says are things you will want to hear, and if you don't agree with him, he will not let go (I wasted about ten minutes trying to explain the rationale of printing signs and instruction sheets in multiple languages in this country). But he loves his home, his friends and his family. And he loves to talk. Funnily enough, the rest of the family loves to talk about him. If there's ever a lull in the conversation in a Lee household (unlikely), just bring up Henry and everyone will have plenty to say.

Henry and my grandmother had several other siblings, including my grandmother's twin brother, Bev. I got to spend a day with Bev's kids and their families while we ate, laughed, argued, and swapped stories. Especially stories of family and friends. I've never heard of such antics performed with nail guns as when the conversation turned to the brother's work in construction. Scary. But fun.

And in case you're wondering, whatever good things you've heard about southern hospitality, it's all true. And it goes double if you're family. Regina dropped a day of work ("I'm on vacation now!") and drove me all around town, then beyond to Colonial Williamsburg, where we got to see some of our country's heritage, my favorite being an actor who sat under a tree with a cane and talked with us for over an hour in the persona of Scottish-American newspaperman Alexnder Purdie. Then after she drove us home from that, I could swim around in the pool, and was fed more food than I knew what to do with while I batted away offers of even more stuff. I might just have to come down this way more often now that I'm moving to the east coast.

No matter how long you give these visits, they always seem too short at the end. That goes for each one of the family visits I've had these past few weeks. And it especially seems true now that this round is over. I've seen most of my living relatives now. I'm writing this on a train that's taking me to Washington DC.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Part 3: The Stones

At some point around the McCarthy period, somebody in the FBI asked my dad whether his sister, Jane, (or Dane, as we call her), was a Communist. My dad, a Communist himself at the time, immediately said "no." He was telling the truth, Dane was a Trotskyite, and, as he put it, "would sooner die before calling herself a Communist."

Aside from her political activities, not just among "the reds", but also in the civil rights movement, Dane is also one of the most well-traveled people I know. At this point in my life, that's saying quite a lot. There are very few people who I can have a normal conversation with where both parties can relate stories spanning four continents. It's really nice.

Her branch of the family took the name of her late husband, Bill Stone, himself an active member of similar political lines, a union activist, and a college professor of English. I got to see a little over half of the family branch that survived him over the last week. Joyce, the carpenter was busy at home in Minnesota, and Dan, my best chess teacher was busy with the adult education program he runs on the north side of Chicago (called simply and accurately, "Fun with Learning"). So I spent a little time with their big brother, my cousin, Dave, the teacher and delegate to the  teacher's union, and his wife, Debbie, who is a lawyer for the ALA, and whose main job is legal defense for the first amendment of the American bill of rights. Then their daughter, Elizabeth (English major and improv actress), and I flew and drove out to the town of Duck, North Carolina, to see Dane at her time-share.

Duck is on the Outer Banks, a tiny strip of land between the sound and the ocean, a few minutes drive north of Kitty Hawk (and the equally oddly named but much less famous town of Kill Devil Hills). I'd never been on a time share before, and wasn't sure what to expect. It was weird. After all this time traveling all over the place, I was, for the very first time, doing the classic thing most Americans associate with travel: getting off an airplane, renting a car, and driving out to a resort where we had a reservation. Surreal. The rental car (a white Kia Rio) is clearly a special Hertz reserved for the under-25 customers. It has manual locks you have to lock individually, crank windows, and no cruise control, yet it comes with satellite radio receiver, and audio and usb jacks. It's like somebody in 2009 wanted to make a car that reminded them of 1999, then got an unexpected donation from the Sirius/XM corporation.

The apartments here are enough to fit ten. There are three of us. I have what amounts to a one-bedroom apartment to myself, a five minute walk from a beautiful Atlantic ocean beach.

It's been a good vacation. Aside from swimming, visiting Kitty Hawk, and climbing the only migratory lighthouse I'm aware of, we've been swapping stories and eating very well. I managed to go swimming in the ocean and not get horribly sunburned, which is always a victory.

But my favorite moment might have been on my second night, when I walked out around midnight to go take a look at the ocean. The weather forecast had been threatening us with thunderstorms, and the place was cloudy when I started  down the drive. I walked to the shoreline, pulled out my headphones and cued up Jamie Cullum's "I Love This," right as I hit the beach. Like magic, the clouds scattered, giving me a near-full moon and stars to walk with on the beach with the crashing Atlantic.

I think I might go see if I can't do that again.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Part 2: The Bergmans

My father, a man raised in a Jewish family in largely Jewish Chicago neighborhood, jokes that he makes a point not to marry anyone who isn't Episcopalian. Our family gets complicated that way.

In most practical senses, I grew up an only child. But I have a half-brother and half-sister through my dad's previous marriage. I've been an uncle since just before I turned nine years old (a cause of much disbelief in 4th-grade Spanish class family tree projects). As of last February, I now have five nieces. What you see here is my dad with one of the two youngest. We came out to Chicago for the baptism of my brother's new baby twins, Sophia and Madeline. As my father says, they're "clearly superior babies."

Recently, for the first time, a good friend asked me point blank why I came home. My immediate answer was my nieces. I'm not letting them grow up without their Uncle Joel around. Supposedly there was a betting pool going among some friends of mine that I'd never come back. At least one side of that pool hasn't met these girls.

Or my half-siblings, come to that. My sister lives with her family just a few blocks from my parents' place, in a gorgeous house they've remodeled from the basement on up. I say goodbye to them with pizza made from a stone oven that had been hauled up on a trailer into their driveway. Great pizza, and a great time my my sister and brother-in-law, their two daughters, and the three respective packs of friends acting as entourage. If I'm going to spend my last night in my hometown with anyone, it'll be them.

Well, them, and some theater friends later that night, but that's another story. We'll skip ahead to the 6am flight to go see my brother, and baptism of his baby girls instead.

My brother is busiest person I know. Like me, he got the travel bug, and like me, he decided to go traveling after college. The way he did it was to become a flight attendant "for a little while," and he got some travel perks that would be almost impossible for me to give up if I had them.

Well, he still hasn't. He became an active and very successful member of the union, led a strike against his company, and won. Then he decided his family could use a little more income. So, while keeping his job, he became an RN, and took another job as a nurse, specializing in hospice care. Then, while still working both jobs, he decided to run for a local political office as a democrat against an entrenched republican in a traditionally republican county of Illinois. Then his wife gave birth to twin girls.

As soon as we walk in the room, the in-laws greet us enthusiastically, and hand us envelopes to stamp for the campaign. Soon after, my brother is checking with his airline's internal system for our sister's chances to join us via standby flight. I'm swapping jokes and bouncing babies with my oldest niece, my brother's daughter by his first marriage. Meanwhile my mother and my half-brother's mother are quite happily making a salad together in the next room.

Because of my dad's legendary appetite (his friend, author Calvin Trillin once wrote him up as "an eater of serious scope"), we end up ordering eleven Indian dishes take out for nine people. I tour my end of the table around the paneer, baigan bharta, and biryani while people rip chunks of spinach and garlic naan to chew with the talk of politics, medicine, travel, and of course, the babies. After all, just like most babies, they're the cutest babies in the world.

None of us get enough time with each other, but we never feel like we do, anyway. Part of working two jobs, running a challenging, winnable political campaign, and having twins. It's all a whirlwind. We roll to the church, The babies are each in pretty white dresses longer than their heights (lengths?) combined. Someone hands me a video camera, and I get to work. Reception. Cake. Book signings. Back to the house for sandwiches, laughs, stories, and whoosh. Gone.

We need to do this more often, we think.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Travel Tip: $499, Unlimited US Air Travel for a month! (Must buy by THIS FRIDAY, August 20th)

Heads up, If you're fast, for US$499, you can fly anywhere that JetBlue flies for a specific monthlong period (Sept 7- Oct 6th), as many flights as you can stand (as long as they aren't on Fridays or Sundays).

Here's their summary:

AYCJ-5: $499* for 30 days of unlimited travel (excludes Fridays and Sundays)
  • Pass travel valid on JetBlue-operated flights in the JetBlue route network only 
  • Domestic taxes and fees included
  • International and Puerto Rico taxes and fees not included
  • On sale now, while supplies last
  • Travel dates: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 through Wednesday, October 6, 2010
  • Each flight must be booked and ticketed no later than 11:59 p.m. EDT or 11:59 p.m. local time, whichever is earlier, three (3) days prior to the flight's scheduled departure
  • Last seat availability
  • Nonrefundable/nontransferable/no name changes permitted
A couple other points I found looking through the fine print. Airports charge usage fees, and the numbers don't seem to quite add up as to how much they cover-- so most of the fee will be covered by the pass. For domestic flights, this looks like it could cost you about another $9 per flight. For international/ Puerto Rican flights however, it might charge you close to $200. (Alaskan flights also have a slight surcharge, but nothing near the three digit mark-- a moot point as Jet Blue doesn't appear to service any airports in the state). I've included fine print at the bottom.

Now this is Jet Blue, they don't fly everywhere, so before you jump on this, take a careful look at their route map.

Apparently they did this last year and it was a huge success. Traditionally airlines have very few customers this time of year. Summer vacations are ending and the holidays haven't started yet. So it's a good way for them to fill up their aircraft.

Very, VERY tempting. However seeing as I've just agreed to pay rent in Manhattan for most of that period, I think I'll be finding another way, another time.

If you do get one of these, leave a comment-- tell us all how it goes and what you're going to do with it!

Buy the Pass here.

Just for posterity, I'm including the fine print of their summary, broken down for slightly easier reading:

Monday, August 16, 2010

Part 1: The Putnams

Meet one of the best storytellers I know. No, not the cute cow chew toy on the right. The rancher in the easychair. That's my grandpa, the reigning patriarch of the Putnam clan. I'll tell you a story he told me this morning. It might explain a little about the Putnam sense of humor:

Decades ago, there was a bit of a uranium craze in the Pacific Northwest. People were looking for places to mine it all over. Including our family's ranch.

One day, a salesman came up to my great-grandfather and said "do you know you've got something up in the hills there?"

My great-grandfather raised an eyebrow and asked "can I get at it with my plough?"

The man paused and said "no."

"Well, then." Said my great-grandpa. "If I can't get at it with my plough then I'm not interested."

After getting rid of the guy, he did a little investigating, realized that they wanted Uranium, and that not all the people like them were dealing on the level. So when they came back to ask again, hoping to buy either the land or mining rights, he told them "Nope. Sorry. I've just got enough uranium up there for my purposes. There's really not enough to go around."

This continued until one day my great grandpa put a couple small piles of rocks on either side of his front gate. The man cam back, asked again, and again my great-grandpa replied, "I'm sorry, but I've only got just enough for me."

The man reportedly wandered back and got in the car with his associate and told him,

"That Putnam's completely crazy."

"Is he?" The friend replied, "Why don't you take your Geiger counter to those piles of rocks over there?"

Sure enough, they were radioactive.

I think this demonstrates (and possibly explains) a lot about the subtle kinds of jokes my mom's side of the family pulls around here.

I came out not just for my grandpa's stories but for a tradition that's happened every year since my parents got married. I've already explained a little about the place last time I was here. Now I'll explain the occasion.

Nearly thirty years ago, my parents got married on this ranch. More than 100 people showed up. They had a fantastic time. Somebody, I think my great aunt who I only ever knew as "Auntie" until she died at age 99, said they should do get together like that every year. And thus the Putnam Ranch Roundup was born.

It's a reunion that hits the second weekend of August each year, not just for family, but everyone in the surrounding community, and anyone anybody already there feels like inviting-- close friends, girl/boyfriends, colleagues, whoever. In my entire life, I've only ever missed one, and that was because I was in South Korea at the time.

The leadup varies with camper vans and tents springing up around the property, but the routine on the Saturday doesn't change. Mid-afternoon, half of us troop down to the Columbia river beach, about a ten minute walk from the main house, because it's too hot to do anything else. Six-thirty we gather at the main house and pile on every dish of food we can haul to an empty hay trailer covered in a table cloth and feast on the family classics (Nancy's tortilla soup, Warren's famous corn, etc). After that we take every chair we can over to the big machine shop where, traditionally led by my grandpa and his fiddle, we play music and sing till long after dark. The kids usually sneak off at this point to play Sardines (hide and seek, except backwards).

This year was no different. Lot of people, lots of laughs. One extremely friendly and somewhat overwhelming Airedale terrier. Lots of cool nights looking up at more shooting stars than you can see just about anywhere. And the same laid-back, sly humor that has always been a part of the ranch, ever since my grandpa first walked up to something or someone standing between him and where he wanted to go and amiably asked "are you in my way?"

It's true some things are a little bit different each time. Like the two cousins who came in playing didgeridoos. Or the massive 1970s Army truck another cousin had completely rebuilt and repainted that could run off of anything from french-fry grease to the cocktail of motor oil and transmission fluid he could get for free from his old base. But things like that aside, it all looked pretty familiar.

There's a lot more history to the place than I'll ever be able to write about here, going back to the Oregon trail pioneers, the Applegates, right up to the current Putnam Ranch llc's business dealings. But this might give you a taste of what we do around there.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Aftertrip Begins

This fuzzy little picture is what I snapped from my night tonight in Seattle. This is how I want to spend more nights: listening to a Jazz-Funk band from Mali while I alternate between dancing with childhood friends and chatting up visiting Spaniards.

So, yeah, I'd say my life's pretty good right now. Even if I haven't written here.

It's not a coincidence. This is a travel blog. It's been a long time since I've been on the road. But you're going to start seeing more posts here again soon. I'm going back to traveling for a little while.

This won't be the massive round-the-world trip like last time. This is just for a couple of weeks. They say that travel writing teaches you more about the writer's home than their destination. I guess this little trip is a way to do that a little more explicitly. This time, instead of reaching outward, I'm going to reach in.

This means my land, my history, and my family. Anyone who knows me well knows how much my family means to me. I am starting in the city I was born in, going to the cattle ranch where my mom grew up, then next to my father's childhood and my college days in Chicago. From there it's off to North Carolina with My father's sister and my cousins. Then up to Virginia where the most famous of my ancestors called home. A pit stop in my homeland's capital city, then back up to its biggest hub and the place I've decided will be my new home: New York City.

It will feel good to dust off the backpack and hit the road again. I've been reasonably busy here in Seattle, among other things, breaking into the theater scene with my first professional gig as an actor (good part, too).

But it's a weird feeling. It's almost as if I'm not entirely here sometimes. For me, it feels like I've been here ages. For everyone around me, old friends, family, I guess it feels like I basically just dropped in to say hello before I left again. When it takes you a week to plan having coffee with someone, you perceive time differently than when you spend that same amount of time visiting four or five Japanese cities, exploring the most famous Edo-style style castle, and summiting the island's tallest mountain. Everything happens so much more slowly when you're home.

Too slowly for me, now. It's time to get out and roam again.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Welcome to JTrek!

For those of you who've never been here before, this is the blog that followed an American backpacker's adventure around the world-- over a year and a half and more than sixty countries across all of the world's continents. You'll find stories of being stuck on tropical islands, walking with penguins, romping through palaces and cave-homes, roasting marshmallows over hot lava, and much, much more.

Click below on the continent that interests you most, and you'll find posts in reverse chronological order (after all, it's a blog).

Australia and New ZealandAfricaAsiaEuropeNorth and Central AmericaAntarcticaIndia (JYA 2006)

(Please note that clicking on India will take you to the blog of a different trip, a study abroad experience and video podcast done by the author with NBC Universal Studios.)

You'll also find some of the better pictures from the trip, with explanations on a sidebar to the right. Just like the posts, they're roughly divided by continent (with a few liberties taken--yes we know the Middle East is actually part of Asia, sorry) Down at the bottom are some other great travel blogs and useful travel websites.

Finally, scattered throughout are posts with tips dedicated to first-time international backpackers, and any other travelers who consider them useful. I like helping new travelers out and would love to answer any specific questions for anyone out there. Send me an email.

If you like what you see, you might find more at my main website:


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Traveler Alert: USA Passport Price Hike, effective July 13

Want to get, renew, or add pages to one of these? Apply in the next ten days, or face a steep price increase.

According to the US State Department, passport fees will be increased on Tuesday, July 13, 2010, as follows:

Those getting a first passport will pay $135 (before 7/13, pay $100).

Those getting their passport renewed will pay $110 (before 7/13, pay $75)

Here's the kicker that affects few travelers, but affects them in a big way: those adding pages to a valid passport will pay $82 (before 7/13, FREE of charge).

So, if you don't have a passport, you passport has expired, or especially if you need more pages, go get that taken care of ASAP. Click here to find the place you can do this nearest you.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Traveler Tips: Q&A from the H.I. Event

So for those who didn't get to go to the Hosteling International event on Monday, I've pulled some of the questions I got that I don't think I've answered before here, and some that my friend Pam answered that I didn't know, plus at least one good suggestion from an audience member.

Q: Should you ever deal with the black market when changing money?
Not if you can help it. It used to be that you could do this in many countries and get a much better rate than you could through an official money changer. I've heard rumors that this might still be true in places like Venezuela, but for the most part, not only is this no longer true, but the black market has almost exclusively been filled by scam artists, especially the ones that just operate in the street at border crossings and major cities. You will get fake currency, bad exchange rates, and slight of hand to trick you into thinking you got more than you actually did.

If you must use the black market, then it's a situation where someone official can point you to the reliable guy on the black market. I have asked police and border patrol personnel and they have helped me with this. I got a good rate with real currency. You'd think the people I asked would rather arrest the people instead of giving them customers, but in some places (mostly Africa), they know this is the only way to change money, so they'll just kind of give you a "if this doesn't work, it's not my fault" spiel beforehand.

Q: How would you feel about driving a car in the developing world?
Eh... I'd be nervous. I wouldn't do it until I'd spent enough time to become familiar with the driving local driving style, roads, and traffic police habits. In East Africa, the police pull over foreign-looking drivers all the time to try to fleece them for bribes. If you don't pay, they find something to fine you for. In South America, people will take blind corners on steep mountain highway with no shoulder or guard rail, and just drift into the lane of opposing traffic. As driver, I know I wouldn't be able to handle these sorts of things without a good amount of practice and familiarization first.

Q: If you need medical attention and you don't speak the local language, how do you find a good doctor and someone who can translate for you?
Doctors all over the world are expected to learn some English. It's the international language of many disciplines in the hard sciences, so they're expected to know some as part of their studies. Finding an English speaking doctor or pharmacist shouldn't be nearly as hard as you might imagine. As for making sure it's a *good* doctor, use local recommendations. If you have made friends where you are, ask them. If you haven't yet met locals, talk to the staff of the hostel or hotel where you are staying, or the local tourist info center. They all know better then you possibly could. Some travel insurance providers will give you an emergency number you can call that will tell you where a doctor they recommend is located.

Q: What are some things you had a hard time finding on the road that you should get at home?
Most things you can get at home, you can also get abroad, but not necessarily the brands or quality you want. Pam talked about how she was never satisfied with foreign band-aids (I never had a problem with this personally, but I didn't use many). I could never find peanut butter when I wanted it, and very few people outside of the US know what root beer is. Also, if you're like me and have big feet, shoes can be an issue in many countries. I had to get special imported ones from an American mall in Quito once. It was expensive, and a little embarrassing. Finally, I get picky about my clothes being packable, quick-drying and decent looking. Shirts I could usually find. But for some reason, finding pants like this was often a challenge.

Q: What's a good way to help secure your room if you have a private one?
Get a little doorstop. I never had one of these, but it was suggested after the event, and I think it's a good one. This assumes of course that you aren't sharing the room and the your door opens inwards, and that the bottom of the door is close enough to the floor for it to work, but in those situations, a doorstop could be handy to make you more secure.

Hope that's helpful. Thank you very much to all who attended! If any of you had a favorite question I haven't included here, comment or email me, and I'll add it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Come See Me In Seattle!

Next Monday, June 28th, thanks to Hosteling International USA, I'll join fellow traveler Pam Perry to answer your questions about traveling less developed countries.

As it says on the pretty flyer to the left, this event is free and open to the public, at the American Hotel (also known as the new HI Seattle hostel) at 520 S. Kings St. We'll be in the common room at 6:30.

I plan on bringing some of my gear, including my backpack, to show what kinds of stuff I packed for my trip, and what I do and don't recommend that you bring as well. We're not just going to talk at you, this is going to be an open discussion, addressing concerns and questions of whoever is there. The focus will be on helping first-time independent travelers who want to go to less developed areas, but there might be a few stories to share as well.

So, come and bring friends! I'll see you there.

(BTW, for the Facebook inclined, the event is online here.)

Monday, May 31, 2010


I've been waiting to write this entry for a long time. I've had a million ideas about what to say. Sometimes, only halfway through my journey, I'd think I knew exactly what I was going to say at the end. But those things are not what I thought they would be. They were what I thought at the middle.

As much as I hate writing it, this is the end. For this trip. My backpack is sitting in my closet, empty. This trip is over.

I'm not technically home, but in some ways I'm closer to home now than I could be when actually there. I'm sitting in the house my grandfather built out of stone, all those years ago, after coming back from World War II. I'm sleeping in my mother's old room, which wasn't ready for her to sleep in until she was almost a teenager. It's very pink.

Outside is the river valley my mother and her brothers played in up to adulthood. If you see how my uncles spend time with their tractors and dirt bikes, you could argue they never stopped. Halfway down the dirt road between the stone house and the barn is a half-disintegrated truck, the back of which was the playhouse for my cousins and me when we visited. I think we spent most of our time making gourmet meals out of mud. Maybe they were just pies.

Surrounding us is the garden my grandmother spent most of her life tending. Just up the hill, along the road that bears our family name, is the stone that marks her final resting place. The cows we kept have been sold, but the horses are still around. I can't remember being somewhere with so many birds and wild deer, something I never really appreciated much before leaving.

This ranch is one of the few places I know with no cell phone reception. My aunt and uncle's place on the other end of this part of our property has the only internet, connected by satellite. Every month, my mother comes for a long weekend. Growing up, every couple of months, depending on my school schedule, I would come up with her.

I used to think of it as being not that worthy of note compared to the other wondrous things in the world. But now I've seen those other things, and, this spring, this place looks as beautiful and deep as the best of them.

It makes sense to end my journey where my journey began. It's not exactly the same place it used to be when I left, but I'm not the same guy I used to be when I left it, so I guess fair's fair.

Ever since I turned about eighteen, my life has had a lot of goodbyes. I got good at them. Either they came with leaving Seattle for college in Chicago or coming back, every break, or to some other place entirely and home again. Parting ways with people and places is like going to sleep. Part of life.

The secret to handling it is knowing that, short of death, none of them are permanent. I never really say goodbye. I just say "see you later." Because there's no way of knowing you'll never see each other again.

So when I say goodbye to this adventure, it's not goodbye to adventure. Adventure and I go way back now, and I expect we'll cross paths again sometime. Maybe sometime soon. But for this trip, it's time we went our separate ways.

I've learned a lot. I've become more of a risk taker, comfortable with anyone I meet, adaptable to any circumstance, and resourceful in any situation. I hope for new chances to put all those things to good use.

So while I sit here at one of the places that smiles when I call it 'home,' I can relax, trying my best to hold on to all the memories of the world, knowing at least half of them will slip through my fingers back to where they came from. I'll have the photographs, the journal entries, and the tidbits I wrote here. Beyond that, it's going to be me trying to hum the tunes somebody played for me somewhere far away, hoping I still get some of the notes right.

So, what's next for me? Well, I'm in a play, going up in the end of June, in Seattle (EDIT: No I'm not. The show has been canceled. Twice.). I'll be making some music, spending time with my family, keeping myself busy with all those things I could never do on the road. After that, unless some big opportunity grabs me somewhere else, I'll be heading to the next adventure in New York City. Before that, I have a lot of things to sort out from this trip. Tickets, guidebooks. Pictures. Videos. And I'll keep writing.

This blog will be reorganized, to put emphasis on the places I've been, rather than the most recent thing I've written. And any future public announcements regarding my travel, writing, music, new blogs, or anything else interesting will show up here, the usual online outlets (twitter, Facebook, google buzz), and on a new website I'm tinkering with (as of this writing, still under construction):

But this will probably be the last blog post of its kind. I'd like to post a few more tips. Maybe a "where is he now" sort of post in a few weeks. I might even upload a couple of those videos I mentioned, if I think they're good enough. That's all.

Thank you, everyone, everywhere. This adventure has been everything I hoped and more. I will leave you all with three words that I think sum up my feelings nicely:

Best. Planet. Ever.

Check out this entry's Photos.

What I Think

Halfway through the trip, sitting in the Beijing bus station, before heading to Mongolia, a Chinese man asked me about my trip. I told him what I was doing.

"Well, what do you think?" He asked.

"What do I think about what?" I asked.

He looked confused. "You're going everywhere. You've been to many places."


"So... what do you think?"

I wasn't prepared for that question. I still only think I understood the gist of it. But it's something I thought about a lot over the next half of the trip.

After getting back to Seattle for the first time, I had lunch with a couple good friends of mine. They're smart people who I've known for a few years now. When I made an offhand joke about how everybody asks me what my favorite place was, one of them immediately nodded and said:

"You see, Joel, what they mean when they ask you that is, 'what did you learn?'"

Whether or not that's always true, it's a good question. Reminded me of Mr. "What do you think."

I've spent a lot of time writing. Not just this blog, but just... stuff. Things I thought were interesting. True stories that were too long for posting. Fiction, and lots of it. And some of the things I read, was told, and observed that made the most sense to me.

Often I get cagey about my opinions or life lessons. Partially it's because I'm only 23, no better than anyone else, why should I try to pretend I know something others don't? Partially it's because I don't want find out I'm wrong, and have someone in the back of the room get up and yell that everything I just said is a lie

But I've been around the world now. And I have learned a few things. Maybe they aren't all correct, but after going halfway to everywhere, they make sense to me. Now that I'm home, I figure I could share some of those things.

We humans are great at finding what we look for. When we travel, we look for something new, out of the ordinary. When we're at home, we have the same opportunities, but don't see them because we're not looking for them. People are fascinated with what is foreign to them. Things that are far away. So much so that sometimes, when they come that distance, they keep everything around them far away. When they come home, it's as if they were never actually close to where they went.

Time may be money, but good information can be worth more than the two combined.

People usually believe anything you tell them, unless they have reason not to. We tend to obey authority figures, or even just those who seem to be authorities/have symbols of authority.

Telling people you care is often better help than just doing their chores or feeding them. Everybody loves to be given a genuine smile. People have a hard time focusing on altruistic things if they are dealing with personal things.

When you're the last of your kind, you get stuck in conservative ways to preserve your culture and status. When you're in a big group of your kind, you try to do things differently, to innovate, to stand out. People all over the world want to be accepted, yet they want to stand out. They refuse labels, but they will vigorously defend those they feel to be like them. People have a nasty disposition to decide people who aren't like them are less than human, or at least inferior to those like them. Usually they will have logical reasons. If you treat people like scoundrels, they'll often start acting like them. If you treat them like responsible adults, they'll often start acting like them. Peace usually isn't bought about by moderates. Lasting peace is when two most extreme enemies come together in agreement.

The fastest way to convince people of your point of view is not by arguing based on shared facts. It's by teaching them different facts. Most disagreements come not because people disagree about what should be done about a problem, but because they are operating on a different set of facts. The easiest way to get people to do something is to offer it to them as a choice. Nobody wants to be acted upon, everybody derives satisfaction from control. Some people think that's where happiness comes from. Let them choose as if it is completely of their free will.

People often observe their actions in order to determine their beliefs, instead of letting their beliefs guide their actions.

People love to say the world is getting smaller every day. Well, I've seen the world, and I'm here to tell you it's still pretty big.

Maybe you don't agree with everything I say. Probably a lot of it is wrong. But I hope it will make you think about yourself, people and the world we live in.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Trip by the Numbers

This is a rough idea of my route, thanks to Google Maps.

I've been spending the free time over the last couple days re-reading my journals and sorting the photos I took. I'll have some big fancy homecoming blog entry for you in a few days. But first I thought I'd throw this and some facts at you to make curious people happy.

So, here's the trip breakdown. Request other statistics and I might add them.

Departure from home: Sept 23rd, 2008.

Departure from USA: Sept 27th, 2008.

Continents visited: Seven.

Countries visited: 63-69, depending on how you count.

Country list (*-indicates v. brief stay, layover, or not really independent country): Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands*, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile*, Antarctica*, Brazil, Uruguay*, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong*, China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland*, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Italy, Vatican City, France, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestinian West Bank*, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, USA.

Return to USA: April 27th, 2010-- 19 months after departure from USA.

Final(?) return home: May 23rd, 2010-- 20 months after departure from home.

Longest bus ride: 3 days, Ushuaia to Buenos Aires.
Shortest plane ride: 25 minutes, Quito to Guayaquil, en route to Galapagos islands.
Longest plane ride: 13 hours, Buenos Aires to Auckland (slept through the whole thing)
Number of times crossing equator: Six
Plane rides: 18
Long distance boat rides: Six
Long distance bus/train rides: 1 metric f--- ton.
Photos taken: More than 11,000

Sunday, May 23, 2010

In Memory of Tommy Nez, 1926-2010

A picture of pictures. Us sharing memories of Tommy most of us were too young to ever have ourselves. This was after the service, before we came to his home to find his final message for my father. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, our arrival.

The first thing we did was to get ourselves a hotel room. That way, when we visited each family, we could say "Oh, no, thank you but we already have a place to stay!" The next was to figure out who to visit first. There was no right answer to this. So we just went. The next tricky bit was remember not to compliment them on any of their material possessions-- if we did that, they would insist on giving them to us, and would only be dissuaded after a lot of haggling. Hosts don't get more hospitable than this, and I've met some hospitable hosts.

Weirdly, what it all reminded me of was my experience in Japan. It's a very different culture, but it's similar in that I was expecting a somewhat closed, subtle people with cold undertones. Instead, I met friendly, vibrant, easygoing people who could chat about anything seemingly without end.

There are some rules to observe. Eye contact is not encouraged. If you shake someone's hand, a firm handshake is not appreciated nearly so much as lightly holding their hand for a second. Silence is not the awkward absence of conversation, but the presence of something familiar. If you do say something, there's not much need to be short and to the point, or to connect it to whatever anyone else happens to be talking about. Things like touching and hugging happens between only close friends and family.

Which is why it was a surprise to me for my father, mother and I to get warm, long hugs from almost every person we met. That's what really drove home the love and respect my father commanded in this community. He'd lived in the area for about 17 years, so I shouldn't have been surprised. I don't think I heard a single person call him "Bob." It was always "Dr. Bergman," or "Uncle." Tommy's son, upon meeting us before the service, gave him a very long hug and told him "I guess I'm going to be calling you 'father' now."

While the hugging is unusual, a friendly greeting to everyone present is customary. The morning of the service, we got full demonstrations from each person who drove up to the front of the little church, just over the border into Arizona. Like all the other dry, high plains I'd been too, it was cold at night and hot in the day. We were out early enough to still be comfortable in jackets. We stood in a circle, quietly chatting. Some crying, most smiling. Ron, Tommy's son, was smiling when he excused himself, and as he walked away, called over "Uncle." My father and he stood apart, talking quietly for a moment before coming back to us.

"He want's us to come back to the home after the service" My father said. "Apparently, Tommy left something for me."

I'd known that Ron had moved into Tommy's old house on the part of the reservation called Wide Ruins. We'd heard how he had performed the traditional rite of keeping a fire burning there for the four days after the loved one has died.I had only the vaguest memories of the place, small buildings at the end of a dirt road in the Arizona desert.

The Franciscan monk, charged with leading the service, arrived, and promptly showed his lack of cultural know-how by walking right through the crowd, acknowledging it, barely, without a single handshake volunteered. He was surprised when the one person at the end wanted to shake his hand. A few minutes later, we followed him inside.

The pink-beige stone church was tiny. We had come early, and were asked to sit in the very front with the immediate family. The place filled up slowly, even as the ceremony began. The first and main part of it was awkward. It was Catholic. Very catholic. The monk had the repeated and awkward habit of talking about how devoted Tommy was to Jesus. Some of the principal mourners clearly had no intention of participating in this. After all, this was the funeral for a road man (spiritual leader) of the Native American Church. In the sermon, the monk admitted freely that had actually never known Tommy. But I did like the story he told of talking with the family: "I asked whether I should call Tommy by the name of Thomas, or Tommy. They told me 'if you called him Thomas, he probably wouldn't answer.'"

The service went on, accidentally skipping the eulogy, on out to the procession to the graveyard.

To my mind, this is where the real funeral began. A tall Navajo man with two eagle feathers in his hat stepped forward, and explained he would be singing a few songs and saying a few words to the best of his ability, and that those who could were welcome to join him. He was the head of the local NAC.

He started with a long, thin whistle. An eagle bone. It made a noise that made me think of seagulls. He dipped an eagle feather in water, and flicked it to the four directions: east, south, west, then north, to follow the course of the sun. And then he, and those around him, began to sing. It was a desert kind of song. The melody wasn't so important. It was the rhythm and words, rocks bouncing on the ground in the wind. More whistle, more water. Some from the feather, some tears.

But it wasn't over after that. Next was the military. An honor guard of ten Native American veterans had come to honor their fallen comrade. A speech, a three-round gun salute, and taps on the bugle. The American flag on the coffin was removed, folded, and handed from ranking officer to private, with a salute. Several men in the audience, veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, quietly joined the salute. Then from male soldier to female soldier. Then from female soldier, to Tommy's widow. Another salute. Then a big hug. A man in the crowd gave two sharp hoots and an "oorah" of the marine corps.

The coffin was lowered six feet. Then its plywood cover. Then the first flowers and fistfuls of dirt, one mourner at a time. Then we pulled aside for the earthmover to do the rest of the burial. It was there that the family finally got to read Tommy's eulogy.

This is where we finally got to tell the world about the Tommy Nez, born into the Red House People Clan to the Towering House People Clan, February 6, 1926. Veteran of WWII and the Korean War. Roadman to Navajo, and throughout the western United States and Canada, receiving his fireplace from one of the originals, and heralded by his family as the last of his kind. A father, brother, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather. A charismatic and compassionate leader with a legendary sense of humor and love for seemingly all people. Loved in his life, much missed in his passing. With this, and the flowers on his grave, the service ended.

A few hours later, after we had shared photos, memories, and a lot of food with the "dearly beloved gathered there that day," my parents and I set out in our rental car, and made several false turns trying to find Tommy's old home. Even though the desert is made of rocks and not sand, Wide Ruins' dirt roads have the habit of shifting when your back is turned for a few years.

When we did find the place, we were invited into one of the buildings-- a one-room home, the kind I'd seen in so many developing countries, with simple walls covered in posters and calendars, and in this case, an American flag. Ron sat on the bed, My father on an overstuffed easy chair and a blanket. Ron pulled out a case, opened it, and lifted out two ceremonial rattles. Then he glanced up at us, gave a mischievous grin and said, "No. No." Just the way tell off a dog staring at your dinner.

He dug a little bit further and pulled out what he had been looking for: an elaborate, beautifully decorated ceremonial fan, made with white feathers.

"Before he left, my father said you'd come down here." Ron said, "He said 'when your uncle gets here, you honor him, and you give him this.'"

"You think he knew that he probably wasn't coming back?" My father asked.

Ron nodded. Tommy knew.

Driving away from it all, my father said that part of him still doesn't believe it. I've never known anyone who called me brother to die, but from what I know, it's a long time before any of us will believe he's gone. Maybe we never really will.

Check out this entry's Photos.