Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Six Months in SE Asia: Preparation


All suited up at PDX

Now that I am on the road, I want to write a bit about the planning, preparation, and expenses that went into this trip. I covered this slightly in my first post about the trip, but I will run through the details now.

Planning

It took a large number of hours to plan this trip. Originally, I was going to on this trip alone and for 6 weeks, basically spending 3 days in each major city. When my partner jumped on board we lengthened the trip to a year, and added India, China, Australia, and Europe to the itinerary. When it came time to actually plan out the details, the thought of being on the road for a year sounded more tiring than exciting, and we didn’t want to pack for so many different climates, so we narrowed it down to SE Asia and India.

We decided to follow the good weather, starting in Bali in September and concluding in Cambodia at the end of January. I wanted to have all six months planned out by the day, but that didn’t happen. We couldn’t decide what to do with India, and the stress of planning was wearing on me, so we decided to plan out only the first four months of our trip, leaving the last two months wide open.

As we move from place to place, we will learn more about ourselves as travelers. How much time do we like to spend in each place? How tiring is traveling? Do we prefer cities or offbeat places? Once we know our nomadic selves better, it will be easier to plan the last two months of the journey.  I have no idea where we will be in February and March. We could still go to India or Sri Lanka, as we discussed. Or we could return to our favorite places in SE Asia, or visit new ones. It is still a mystery!


Preparation

  • Logistics
    • First, we bought our plan tickets (one-way) and reserved all of our accommodations in each place. As I worked my way through our itinerary, I booked all major modes of transport (airplanes, boats, trains).  
  • Visas
    • Once the logistics were handled we tackled visas. Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia grant visas on arrival. Singapore and Malaysia don’t require one for us. Myanmar and Vietnam were the only two countries we needed to prepare visas for. This turned out to be incredibly easy. The Vietnam Embassy took only 2 days to process our visas, and Myanmar took four days.
  • Vaccinations
    • This was perhaps the most difficult (and costly) part of the preparation. My partner lived in the U.S. and went to a travel clinic for vaccines. It cost over $1,000 USD for everything, but it was easy. As for me, I was in Japan and could not get the vaccines from my tiny town, so I made two trips to Tokyo for 6 vaccines and I paid around $500 USD. Cheaper, but so much more inconvenient.
  • Medication
    • Most of the medicine we brought was easily purchased at grocery store. Advil, Immodium, Peptobismal, etc. We also bought homeopathic remedies for food poisoning, charcoal tablets, and Zypan, which was harder to find. Unfortunately, we need Malarone for malaria in some of the countries we are visiting, and that was extremely expensive.  
  •  Shopping
    • The most fun part of preparation was definitely the shopping. I bought a new backpack, Crocs, Nikes, a money belt, headphones, a toiletries case, eye mask, portable charger, and other small items for this trip. I ordered most things online from Amazon and bought the rest at REI. I am so glad I spent a month in Portland before this trip, because there is no way I would have been able to purchase these items from my rural village in Japan.


Expenses

When I prepared a budget for this trip I completely left out the cost of vaccinations, visas, insurance, and gear. These things ended up being a huge percentage of the total cost of our trip. I will list the most significant expenses here:
  • Vaccinations: (Japanes encephalitis x2, Polio, Tetanus, Hepatitus A&B, Typhoid) $500
  • Visas (for two people): Vietnam $200 + $50 in shipping costs, Myanmar $40+$50 in shipping cost, Indonesia $70,
  • Insurance: $240
  • Malarone: $700 (for three months for two people)
  • Homeopathic remedies, Zypan, Charcol tablets: $100
  • Osprey Farpoint 55: $180


Main points:

If you want to plan out the logistic of your trip, start six months in advance.
Set aside money for visas, vaccinations, and medication. It will cost far more than you imagine

Friday, September 26, 2014

Six Months in SE Asia: The Plan




Surprise! I am now in to Bali, Indonesia kick-starting a six-month jaunt across all southeast Asia. This gigantic trip is something  I have been dreaming of for most of my life and planning for the past three years.

I have the next six months planned out to the day. This was not my intention in the beginning. I was hoping to arrive with only a one-way ticket and a hotel reservation for the first few nights, then wing it from there. I thought I would leave everything to chance and serendipity. I imagined staying longer in the places I loved, fleeing the places I didn’t love, and following random people I met on the road to places I didn’t even know of.
But that’s not how it’s going to be.
I need a certain level of comfort and convenience that $10/night hostels cannot provide. I need to know where I am staying and how and when I will make my next move. I don’t want to be planning a trip while I am on a trip. I don’t want to stay in a cruddy place because all the best guesthouses were booked.
Back in the 80s, my partner’s friend backpacked all around Southeast Asia. He had no plans and went with the flow, wandering from town to town, sometimes finding a nice guesthouse, sometimes sleeping outside in a sleeping bag. But that was before the internet, when his only other option would have been to book an expensive tour and be herded around like cattle. With the internet, we can essentially be our own tour operators, customizing our itinerary, accommodation, and transportation. There is no need to wing it when all the savvy people are planning ahead.

That being said, I have no idea what kinds of events and activities will shape my daily life. I have the experience of living in my home country, and living in a foreign country, but I don’t know anything about life on the road. My longest trips were in Japan, on a rail pass, where I hopped from city to city and stayed in chain hostels, and Pakistan/Dubai, where I stayed with local families and was well-taken care of. I have never done such a long trip involving so many countries, knowing so few people in each place, and have so few expectations.
Here is how we planned it:

Length of time in each place
In every city  we will be staying at least three days, except for a few transit towns where we will only be staying one night.
In bigger cities we will be staying at least six days, to see and experience more.
Our longest stay will be in Chiang Mai, almost one month. The second longest will be Saigon, for two weeks.

Transportation
We tried to avoid flying as much as possible but sometimes it is the only option. We will be taking ten flights on six airlines.
We will not be taking more than one major mode of transportation per day. For example, if we have to take an eight-hour bus ride to the town where we will catch a flight out of the country, we will spend one night in the town to avoid missing our flight in case the bus is delayed.
We will be spending at least six nights on trains in at least five countries.

Lodging
Our first choice was to have an apartment in each city, so that we could gather some experience as residents, not tourists. In many places it was possible to book apartment –style lodging though airbnb. Where it was not possible, we booked homestays with local residents and families. When that was not possible, we booked mid-range hotels.

Luggage
We are bringing carry-on luggage only. Each of us has an Osprey Farpoint 55, which includes one 40 L bag and one small 10 L bag.  In my big trips to both Japan and Pakistan, I brought two gigantic suitcases which were checked on the flights there and back. This is the first time in my life when I will be forced to travel light.

To Do
My partner and I are both sight-skippers. We are more about "being" than "seeing." Although there are some cliché things no one should miss in certain destinations, we are going to avoid obvious tourist traps, cheesy museums, guided tours, and malls.
Both of us will be working part time while we travel, so we need to spend about four hours per day for five days in a week, working online. I will also be spending extensive time writing for my novel and working on launching a new website in Japanese, as well as blogging (we’ll see about that). So we will be café hounds.
We are both active people and hope to maintain our routine of exercising outdoors at least once a day. I would like to run 6-8 km per day.

Strategy
I have done somewhat satisfactory research on each country, but t is no where near thorough. I looked up some basic and made general lists of things to see and do. We plan to balance out the “to-do” list with free time.
In each city we will spend the first day walking around and surveying the scene. This will give us a general feel for the place, the layout, people, ease of access.

Blogging
I'm still unsure as to the direction this blog will take once I am on the road. Until now it has been a collection of memories and musings from short vacations and one-year of living abroad. Moving forward I am not sure if I want to turn this into a travel diary where I record daily or weekly stories from the road, or continue with unrelated asynchronous posts about the fascinations of life in another country. I imagine this blog will evolve organically, driven by my experience and inspired by my surroundings.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Starbucks Japan Tumblers



A collection of tumblers of each place I visited during my one year of living in Japan. From left to right, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Shimane, Kobe, Fukuoka, Hokkaido, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kanazawa.   




My favorite, Shimane, the place I lived. This limited addition tumbler was made for the March 2013 opening of the first Starbucks in Shimane, located in Matsue City. This  particular Starbucks location have sentimental value to me, and is the setting of many memories.
I was not one of the hundreds of people who  waiting in line for this sold-out tumbler but I bought it unused for 1,000 yen off of someone who did.
Lucky me. 



Every year around February Japan released a tumbler to celebrate the blooming of the cherry blossoms. The one on the left is from 2014, and the one on the right is from 2012. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Year in Japan: Expectations and Reality


The long lonely road lead to my house in Shimane


It has now been over a month since I returned to the U.S. from Japan and I finally feel like I’ve had enough reflection time to to be able to write about my experience.
Many people have asked me to compare my expectations with the reality of life in rural Japan. What surprised me? What was I unprepared for?

On a superficial level, not much. I had been to Japan before. I had been to Shimane prefecture. I had seen pictures of my soon-to-be home and gotten detailed information about the town and my soon-to-be job. I knew what I was getting into on a day-to-day level.

What surprised me were my emotions. No amount of research or prior knowledge could have prepared me for the emotional experience of living abroad in an environment so unlike the one I was accustomed to. In retrospect, I can identify the one feeling that totally caught me off guard.

Loneliness.

Before moving to Japan I never lived alone. I lived in a big city and in Portland I saw my partner, parents, relatives, and friends all the time.  I thought I would miss them. I thought I would miss having close friends nearby, but that’s not how it was. I was able to Skype, call, and email my friends and family in the U.S. all the time, so I wasn’t missing them. 

I was missing strangers. 

Total strangers.  

Coming from a big city I was used to being surrounded by people in cafes, restaurants, stores. I was used to traffic jams and pedestrians and neighbors. I was used to being anonymous in a crown. Life in rural Japan proved to be the exact opposite. In Shimane I was often the only customer in a café or restaurant. I was one of only a few shoppers in a store. In my tiny town, everyone knew me, so I had to stop and greet them all the time. On the road, I would quite frequently drive for kilometers without seeing another car in either direction. 

Loneliness found me on those dark roads, in those empty cafes, and on quiet sidewalks, where I longed to be absorbed into a crowd of strangers.

I missed strangers more than friends.

The entire time I lived in Japan I was in a long distance relationship with my partner. I thought that would be hard, and it was, but not in the way I expected. I thought those moments apart would be torturous, and that all would be wonderful when we saw each other again. Instead I learned to handle the moment in which Skype was all we had. I learned to be ok with going to bed and waking up alone. But when the time came for us to meet in the arrival lobby of an airport it was awkward. We had been apart so long. We had to get to know each other all again. I didn’t expect that.  

The good news for anyone in a similar situation is that things return to normal pretty quickly. After a few weeks it’s almost like you were never apart.

I'm sure that even if I lived in a city loneliness would have crept into my life in some other way, but it was most profound in the quiet mountain peaks of my tiny village. I never got used to the loneliness, but I grew to love the total darkness of night, the heavy silence of winter, and deep stillness of the forest. 

I'm writing this from Portland now, where the sounds of car engines and cafe music and strangers' conversations threaten to erase the quiet loneliness of Shimane from my memory. But now I don't want it erased, I want to carry both experiences with me wherever I go. 

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