Of course, my family decided that I had gone completely insane. Out of all of my relatives, not a single one was in possession of a passport, yet here I was planning a three-month-long, round-the-world backpacking trip – solo. The only ones who had traveled abroad did so courtesy of the US military; I’m pretty sure you don’t need a passport when you jump out of the plane before it lands. When someone says he was in KOrea, instead of koREa, you can pretty much bet he wasn’t there for the barbecue.
My friends were split. Many of them rolled their eyes when I told them my plan – please, not another scheme that will never come to fruition, I’m sure they thought. Others were encouraging, some stoked to the point of promising to go along. My roommate even applied for a passport. But in the end, as my departure drew near, it was clear that I’d be going by myself.
It’s hard to look back in time now and really feel how crazy it all seemed to everyone but me. The Internet was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is now, so most of what we knew of the world outside the US came from CNN – not necessarily a pretty picture. The one or two ‘wealthy’ parents of friends who had been abroad had gone on organized tours to Europe, not backpacking to Bangkok. The number of American guidebooks I was able to find to help arrange such a journey totaled zero; most of the information I was relying on came from British or Australian books like Lonely Planet (completely unknown in America at the time) or Work Your Way Around the World. Fodor’s had little advice for the guy on a $20 a day budget.
I couldn’t just click on the next link for more information, nor could I have a chat with a Facebook friend who might show me the ropes. Added to this was the fact that I had never actually even been on an airplane before – or a train, or a subway, or a city bus. The occasion to travel by any means other than my own personal car had just never presented itself. I had spent my entire adult life in Knoxville, Tennessee up to that point, and there had never really been any reason to get on a plane, or even take a taxi, for that matter. Yet, I booked a series of six one-way tickets – west, west, west – to countries where English would not be easily understood, if at all. And my plan once I got there was to navigate the local transportation systems, sleep in budget accommodation, and figure out where all of the interesting things to see might be. What could go wrong?
Even with all of the information available today, most Americans still can’t fathom that kind of by-your-own-bootstraps trip. So many people I’ve met say they’d love to see the world, but even though I can take some of the mystery out of it – places to stay, prices, how to get there, even which bus to take – they can’t make the leap. It’s hard to leave the familiar for the unknown.
I bought a backpack and some hiking boots. I read guidebooks voraciously, as if my life depended on them – and in some ways, I guess it would, for a few weeks anyway. Finally, the tickets arrived:
Atlanta to Tokyo, via Los Angeles. Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur. Overland to Bangkok. Bangkok to Delhi. Overland to Mumbai. Mumbai to Cairo. Overland to Jerusalem, Bethlehem for Christmas Day. Back to Cairo for a flight to Paris. Paris to Washington DC, via London.
I chose Tokyo because it sounded like the most exotic city in the world to me, and I didn’t have to get a visa to go there. Kuala Lumpur was a hub – and I had never heard of it before (it’s in Malaysia, in case you have never heard of it before either) so it was an exciting gamble. I had wanted to go to Saigon instead of Bangkok, but the price would have been several hundred dollars higher to do it that way. My uncle had served in Vietnam, so it was one of the places I really wanted to go. My mother had an old photo of him – machine gun in his hands, jungle behind him – that seemed the epitome of adventure to me when I was a child. I was assured that I could get there quite easily from Bangkok overland. The idea of India consumed me – exotic, ancient, an assault on the senses – and it was cheap as chips as well. Cairo and the Pyramids? Bethlehem for Christmas? Paris? These needed no explanation.
‘Overland’ transportation was not booked; it simply meant that I had a specified amount of time to get from the one place to another by whatever means I could find. To the horror of my friends – I did not tell my family – I did not book a single night’s accommodation. I had bought a few guidebooks to help me out, but, finding them too heavy in my backpack, tore out only the pages I thought I might need, and stuck them in a binder.
My brother was the one who found my tickets in the mailbox. He wanted to go with me so badly he could taste it. But his wife wouldn’t hear of it. A few months earlier, she had asked for a divorce, and he had talked her out of it. She felt he wasn’t ambitious enough, and that their lives wouldn’t amount to much if he didn’t start focusing more on some kind of success. He got her to stay by swearing that he’d climb the career ladder – asking to go backpacking with his brother for a few months would’ve tantamount to handing her divorce papers. I wished I could somehow make it happen – I could think of no one I’d rather have along for the adventure.
When the day arrived, he drove me to Atlanta, and we talked and laughed all the way down. As I headed to the gate, we hugged, and I got the feeling that he thought he might never see me again. As I got on the plane, I kind of felt the same way.
What had I got myself into?
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