"...Because It's There" JJfromNJ's Profile
I've always harbored a love of travel, which is surprising because I didn't grow up in a family who traveled. A couple states over for an amusement park was the most intense things got. Europe always seemed so intriguing but the Atlantic was an impenetrable barrier. But then I got a real job, accrued some vacation days, and saved up a bit of cash. I decided I was going to Europe.
I had no idea where to start so I went to the travel agency in my local mall. Since it was my first trip, they suggested I book with Contiki, a company that caters to young travelers. I signed up for their European Experience tour, hitting 10 countries in just 22 days. (I can laugh at how ridiculous this seems now, but I was a rookie then).
It was April, 2005. I started in London, then crossed the channel into France, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. In short, it was a completely life changing experience. I think I had expected the trip to be fun, maybe a start to a new hobby. But I had no idea it would have the impact it did. It was completely obvious to me that I caught the travel bug and this wasn't just another hobby. Suddenly my list of "Places to Go" started growing, and cities with massive tourism industries were joined with places a tad more obscure.
I went back to Europe in September, 2006 with a lot more confidence than the first trip. The most noticable improvement was that I went from tour customer to something of a tour guide. I ditched Contiki and, not only did my sophmore trip independently, but organized the itinerary for myself and a group of friends.
First we went to Ireland. We rented a van and I had my first bout with European driving. This included driving on the left, shifting with my left hand, driving across the entire country jetlagged, and dealing with roundabouts what seemed like every five miles.
Next we flew to Munich. This was my second time in the Bavarian capital but my first for Oktoberfest. We ultimately chose a September trip to coincide with Oktoberfest over a summer trip for the World Cup, a decision which depresses me with intense regret to this day. But Oktoberfest was amazing. The crowds were very frustrating but the fest is truly something everyone should experience once.
Our grand finale of the trip was an Eastern European loop through Salzburg, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Krakow, and Prague. (I would later discover that Europe gets MUCH more east and MUCH less traveled than this.)
It was my first time really dealing with language barriers and the currency exchange was notably more involved than the ubiquitous Euro on my first trip. I discovered the amazing European worlds of train travel and hostels. And it seemed the further east we went, the cheaper it got, the more interesting the locals got, and the better the food got.
While in Vienna, I met an Australian girl who convinced me to come back and meet up with her in Amsterdam. So I found unbelievably cheap airfare, rounded up another crew of friends, and we flew to Brussels. The trip was only four days but was amazingly fun. The reactions I got from people at home were classic. "What do you mean you're going to Europe for a weekend?" Puzzling facial expressions followed.
Now a seasoned European backpacker, I knew how rewarding traveling could be. I also understood the difference between travelers and tourists. This was most evident when I took a couple trips to the Caribbean with my family. First to the Dominican Republic, then to the Bahamas. We stayed at extravagent resorts dropped in the middle of developing countries. The all inclusiveness was of course a good thing, and I got some good family bonding time in. But honestly my favorite parts of these trips were the drives from the airports to the resorts, and wandering through the markets in Nassau. I was clearly a traveler travelling with my family of tourists.
Eventually the prospect of taking four week mini vacations became less sufficient for me. I realized I was just getting settled when it was time to go home. So I saved up enough money, I negotiated for over a year for a leave of absence at work, and I took six months to travel around the world in 2008.
I wanted to focus on places that were harder to get to than Europe. I wanted culture shock and I wanted challenging travel. I went to Africa for two months, the Middle East for a few weeks, the "real" Eastern Europe for a few weeks, Southeast Asia for two months, and a couple weeks in New Zealand.
I knew before I even left that it would be the most incredible experience yet for me, and of course it did not disappoint. I discovered that my love for Europe had serious competition in Africa and Southeast Asia. I met amazing people from all over the world, climbed one of the Seven Summits, I couchsurfed, hitch-hiked, I did world class drives, hikes and dive sites, I ate in people's homes, slept in caves, went glacier hiking and went cage diving with sharks. I did a lifetime's worth of activities in half a year and I seriously hope I can swing something like that again.
The summer of 2009 brought me to Iceland. I always wanted to go and the financial crisis of 2008 made it the most affordable time there in a very long time. I went with a friend and we couchsurfed in Reykjavik with a really nice Slovak couple. They also rented us their car and we drove through the incredible Westfjords, followed by the 800 mile Ring Road. We met an awesome group of locals at the lobster fest in Hofn, and partied for two straight days. I seriously enhanced my international driving credentials, and I also went whale watching, climbed another glacier, got a speeding ticket, and showered out of a bag (after spending several months in 3rd world countries, Iceland humorously called for unprecedented shower improvisation).
Fast forward half a year later to January, 2010, and I was feeling "stuck" at home and in the office. Combine that with a bitterly cold NJ winter, some cheap airfare to Guatemala, and it was a no-brainer. I actually flew into Belize first for some diving, which I didn't end up doing due to strong currents and a "cold front." As for Guatemala, I didn't really have any expectations but I loved it, and might even consider it to be a fringe pick for favorite country yet. It was a great trip in the end, and furthermore it was a great introduction to Central America.
I never got over missing the Cup in Germany in 2006, so I weaseled my 2nd biggest trip to date, six weeks to South Africa. I actually started out with four days in Egypt on an extended layover. I got out of Cairo and did a three day tour of the Western Desert. It was also great to get into a place like Cairo again, if only for a night.
Then the four year wait for the Cup ended. I had a Team Specific Ticket (TST-7) for Uruguay, which meant I followed all their games until they were eliminated, then continued to follow the winners all the way to the final. I ended up going to 11 matches in total, seeing Uruguay of course, Spain, Holland, Ghana, Paraguay, South Korea, USA, Algeria, Italy, Slovakia, Mexico, France, and hosts South Africa. It was incredible to be a part of something as huge as the World Cup, and it was incredible to see so many different people from so many different places of the world, and to see passion, patriotism, and positivity at such levels.
I also got a chance to see a lot of the country. I drove the Cape Peninsula, traveled down the Garden Route, cage dived with great whites, hiked in the Drakensburg Mountains, endured epic 24-hour local transport experiences, and of course partied with locals and fellow football fans alike.
I've still got plenty of places on my list. India and South America are top priorities now, and Australia, the Trans-Siberian Railway, and China round out secondary choices. I was planning on doing one of these next year, but I'm starting to get some ideas that I should be a little patient and work for another six month trip... hmm........
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