By: Heather & Matthew
On April 25, 2015, we packed up our car with the remainder of our belongings, belted in our dog and we headed off on a month-long road trip across the United States and Canada. Fast forward a year later, we have touched down on 26 flights, floated on 15 vessels, and rode on about 25 trains to get us to/from/around 24 different countries.
Our shortest stop was in Gary, Indiana, USA to visit Michael Jackson’s childhood home. The visit lasted upward of about 5 minutes. Our longest stay was in Kigali, Rwanda where we visited some of our favorite people for two and a half months.
We tried to be spontaneous and try new things, but it didn’t always work out. We attempted to paraglide in Switzerland, but the weather did not cooperate. The weather nixed quite a few of our outdoor adventures, but it is to be expected with travel. I was going to eat crickets in Thailand, but we couldn’t find the food stand at the market.
Overall, the most memorable moments have come with the people we have met along the way. We have met an incredible array of characters, had some eye-opening conversations and made some lifelong friendships. We hope our luck continues. Meeting locals and fellow travelers is one of our most favorite aspects of traveling.
To start our second year, we find ourselves leaving France for Spain where we will be visiting my cousin who has also spent her first year abroad. After Spain, we are fairly sure we will move toward Morocco. Thus far, that is all we have planned. In the next few days, we hope to have a rough course for the year laid out. Most likely, it will include a bit more of Africa and Asia, a lot of the South Pacific and some of South America.
Thank you for all your messages and comments. We really appreciate the support, critiques, advice and well wishes from each of you. We hope you continue to follow along, keep in touch with us and keep us company while we navigate the next 12 months around the world.
United States, Canada, Iceland, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Sicily, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Malawi, Ethiopia, United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, and France
My favorite adventure for this past year has to be our safari in Tanzania with Materuni Tours. Three unbelievable parks Tarangire, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro over four days, what an adventure. Considering their proximity to each other, I was surprised to see how each brought their unique touch to the table. The sheer breadth of life on display is mind-boggling and should be experienced by everyone.
I can’t decide between our four day Danakil Depression tour in Ethiopia or road tripping in Iceland. The landscapes in both countries were gorgeous but so different. The sites in Ethiopia were stark and rugged. In Iceland everywhere we looked was absolutely stunning. I want to return to both because we saw less than 10% of what each has to offer.
Least Favorite Adventure
Despite my instant lack of enthusiasm for Malawi, I had high hopes for our voyage across Lake Malawi on the Ilala vessel. My mind was full of images of Humphrey Bogart steaming his way over the waters in the African Queen. The heat was our biggest nemesis, but that was not something that was under the crew’s control. What can’t be overlooked was the Ilala crew ran out of drinking water one day into our 2 day/3 night expedition. If I had to use two words to sum up the trip, agony and boredom would spring to mind.
I had several moments I would gladly not repeat, but no full adventure I would call least favorite.
How does a person choose such a thing? It is hard to think of a day on this trip where I haven’t had a moment of pure joy.
In 2009, I volunteered at Les Enfants de Dieu boys center in Kigali, Rwanda. I was fortunate to return again in 2011 and 2015. Last summer, my timing coincided with the first alumni reunion of reintegrated boys from EDD. I was able to see some of them that I hadn’t seen since 2011. Most of the boys are all grown up and to hear their current life stories made my heart full of bliss.
While in Harar, we found a dog that was struck by a car. He was still alive but had been suffering on the side of the road for at least a few hours. His injuries were so horrific we both went into a bit of shock trying to process what we saw. We watched people walk over and around the dog and the total lack of any compassion from anyone left us dumbfounded and angry. It took us a lot of time and several conversations with different people to find the local veterinarian and to convince one of the staff members to follow Matt and euthanize the dog.
Looking back, we were both really upset about the dog, but the situation had been the last straw in a string of heart-wrenching occurrences we had witnessed of people not showing compassion, empathy, sympathy or mercy for other life. The build up left us exhausted and forced us to rethink and reorganize the next few weeks of our travels.
The picture perfect beauty of Switzerland was a strong contender, but the undeniable, fantastical wonder of Iceland was the clear winner. Every mile we drove around the Ring Road on Iceland presented us with a new spectacular view. It reminded me of exploring a new planet. The people were friendly and helpful, and I even liked the cod.
I don’t have a clear favorite. I liked parts of each country, but there wasn’t one that stood far above the rest. For sheer beauty, I would opt for Iceland, Ethiopia or Switzerland.
Least Favorite Country
For me, Malawi was a dud. I don’t hate it, but I resent it for taking up my time. Outside of the insane amount of colorful cichlids in Lake Malawi, the country itself underwhelmed me in every way possible.
Probably Sicily. I wouldn’t recommend it to novice travelers, but if you are a detailed planner and have lots of patience you might like it. I found things I liked about Sicily, but we also found it much harder to travel throughout the island than anywhere else we visited. We used public transport and had a rental vehicle and still felt restricted and confused a lot of the time. The people were not especially friendly, and we constantly had to pay attention to vendors trying to scam us. Both our credit cards numbers were stolen while in Sicily. We were pretty sure one card was scanned while we used an ATM. In the non-touristy towns, it is hard to find information, things to do, addresses, storekeepers who were open or people to help. Some of the beach towns were beautiful and functioned fairly well but lacked an authentic Sicilian feel because of all the tourists.
Bangkok provided the best all around experience. It has a variety of tasty food, good transit, outstanding nightlife, art galleries, and history. On top of all that, the Thai’s are some of the friendliest people I have ever met.
I am surprised to say Bangkok because I didn’t think a big city would be my favorite. The accessible transit, delicious and diverse food choices, low prices, excellent accommodations, friendly people, history, art and a non-stop list of things to do made Bangkok my top pick.
Least Favorite City
Kuala Lumpur was a swing and a miss for me. I couldn’t find anything that sparked my fancy.
Niagara Falls on both the Canada and U.S. sides. The falls were smaller and the area more congested than I had imagined. The Canadian side did seem cleaner, but unfortunately, the view of the U.S. side with the bright lights and casinos ruined the landscape. The whole setting was too touristy and lacked any character for me.
Most Surprising Location
Ethiopia surprised us with its diversity, range of activities and the ability to hold on to an antiquated time keeping system. We both had a great time in Ethiopia and after bouncing around for almost a month still feel a lot is waiting to be seen.
Most Disappointing Location
We both had visions of exotic glamor and beauty when we thought of Zanzibar and Stone Town, especially. We thought we would see colorful buildings full of character with huge beautiful wooden doors. Instead, we saw a rundown, dirty city barely holding on to preserving its past reputation and vigor. Sure, we found a few things we liked about Stone Town, but it wasn’t anything close to the reputation we had read or heard about.
Favorite Tour or Accommodation
If you saw my favorite adventure answer, then it will be no surprise to see Materuni Tours listed here. Not only did they take us on an outstanding wildlife adventure, but they also took us on a hike to base camp on Mount Kilimanjaro. The owner and the guides were all fantastic.
We have had a lot of excellent tours, but our tour with Za in Bac Ha, Vietnam was special. Our one on one 7 hour hike through the hills and farms of Bac Ha was like no other tour we have ever taken. With her charismatic and easy going personality, we instantly felt like we had known her for years. During the trek, Za educated us about the hills, farms, tribes, culture, history of the area and the future of farming in Northern Vietnam. I loved chatting with Za, meeting her family and neighbors. The entire experience with Za was phenomenal.
Least Favorite Tour or Accommodation
Sri Lanka holds the title for both. We went on a tour in the Sinharaja Rain Forest, not only did the guides mislead us as to what we were going to see; they left us out on the trail all alone in the pouring rain after they made it clear no one was to be in the forest without a guide. We also went on a snorkeling tour to Pigeon Island National Park, for which you pay a fee because it is a protected park. Rangers are stationed on the island to help protect it, but it would be more efficient to have trained monkeys to throw poop at unruly visitors. Everywhere you looked visitors were ignorantly destroying the coral beds, and the Rangers couldn’t be bothered to leave their shaded chairs. Don’t get me started on the vast majority of accommodations we had in Sri Lanka. When they were trying to get you in the door every question was answered with a yes, subsequently every request was followed up with an excuse of not now, maybe later, I don’t understand or sorry no.
The owner/manager of Majestic Tourist Hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka unprofessionalism, dishonesty and rudeness were too much for me. We were lied to about the time the construction noises would stop. Although the noises were inconvenient, we could have waited the issue out. When we each confronted the staff member separately about the previous misinformation, the situation quickly went downhill. If the manager had approached our complaint in a professional manner rather than a personal/emotional way, I believe things would have been different. Instead, she proceeded to act belligerent and rude toward all 3 of us. By the end of the ridiculously one-sided conversation she had pissed off Matt, myself, and our friend, Elle, so thoroughly we packed our belongings and left for a much friendlier and professional hotel in Kandy.
MiMi2Go in Hong Kong provided me with my best meal. I had some of her insanely tasty Korean BBQ and the best home made tea. Second place was a tie between another serving of Korean BBQ from Ma Sa Pin, a small outdoor eatery in Chiang Mai, and BBQ ribs from The Smokin’ Pug in Bangkok. Rounding out the top three was French toast from Pakachere Backpackers in Zomba, Malawi.
I love lobster, so when I read somewhere that Höfn, Iceland was the Atlantic lobster capital of the world I couldn’t wait to try a few of their famous crustaceans. My plate full of lobster tails at Pakkhús Restaurant was full of flavor, and the meat was so tender it melted in my mouth.
My favorite home cooked meals were from Mimi2Go in Hong Kong. Our friends in Hong Kong introduced us to this hidden gem in the Central area. The owner, Kimmie, creates Korean classics with a healthy spin, and the results are delish. She even makes her teas from scratch.
My most surprising favorite dish was the Korean BBQ Pork at Ma Sa Pin in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Korean food beat out Thai food in Thailand. Crazy, right?! We both loved this simple version of pork so much we returned three times and order three plates of it in one sitting.
I had lots of meals that were lackluster, but no one meal stands out as the worst. As a whole, I was pretty disappointed with Zanzibar. It is named the spice island, but most of my meals lacked flavor or any zing. One funny and super disappointing food experience came our way in Rwanda. We had convinced ourselves that we were desperate for a Wendy’s (U.S. fast food chain restaurant) style crispy chicken sandwich. Our friend, Willy, said he had the answer and took us to a restaurant, which had the exact picture of the same sandwich on its menu. All three of us promptly ordered one, but what we got resembled and tasted like a compact, reheated vegetarian burger patty. We were bummed for days.
In Asia, I found lobster flavored Lays potato chips. I am a potato chip/crisp addict, and I love lobster. These were the first potato chips I have ever thrown away. Gross!
Mistakes or Regrets
While it is fun to go spontaneously wherever the wind blows, I’ve learned a little bit of research and planning is required. There have been too many times when I have taken a bit of information and thought I could plan an entire experience on it. Instead, it tends to lead to lost time and extra stress. If you want to get the most out of your destination having a base plan with a general idea of things to do and see is the way to go. Then let the wind blow you around.
Feeding the hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia left me. Before we arrived, we had read about the local farmer who had made it his family business to protect locals from hyena attacks by providing a nightly feeding the animals just outside the city center. What started out as an upstanding idea has turned into a highly profiting business, which alters the mindset and nature of the wild animals. At the heart of it, all are tourists paying money to be a part of the action. As I watched tourists feed and interact with the hyenas, I noticed all of the seven visible hyenas either had a broken leg or some kind of leg injury. I asked our guide about the injuries, and he said a human with a stick or rock probably hit the animals because they got too close to him or her. Hyenas are cautious in nature and would not typically approach a human. It’s hard for me not to think their behavior was altered by the constant night feedings. I believe one family feeding the hyenas to keep them out of the city center and to prevent locals from killing the animals is good. I don’t think tourists should be allowed to interact directly with the animals as part of the feeding. I realize this is a simplistic look at a complex issue, but I left the hyena feeding feeling horrible for taking part.
I know a few people who disagree with my outlook regarding the hyena feeding, but for me, I want to make conscious, respectful choices that don’t hurt or negatively impact wildlife or locals. Not every experience will be clean cut and obvious, but I hope to make good decisions and educate and learn from any future mistakes.
Our flat out idiot decision was getting caught up in the moment and renting a scooter to ride on the beach in Zanzibar. We came to our senses within the first kilometer but then had to turn the bike around to return it. The noise, pollution, invasiveness, destruction and annoyance caused by any motorized vehicle on a beach is ludicrous. And the huge fight it caused between us because we were both so disgusted with ourselves for allowing it to happen. The most stupid decision we made all year.
Lessons Learned in the Past Year
I am sure that this thought will not be revolutionary to some, but I am coming to the conclusion the only way you can truly explore a place is to do it on foot or to drive yourself. Slowing our travel way down, to the point where we are spending up to a month in each country is showing me how easy it is to miss so much. I realize that having this much time is a luxury that most don’t have. Hell, I won’t have it forever but writing someplace off after just a weekend visit is unfair.
We need to stay caught up on the blog. If we don’t, the stress seeps into every aspect of our travel and our relationship and makes us unhappy.
When it comes to choosing vendors or experiences – Listen to My Gut!
Don’t always listen to Matt. He sometimes likes to make stuff up as he goes along.
What Would You Do Over in Year 1
I would return to Vietnam when it was a bit on the warmer side. I had such a great time exploring Vietnam, and it was far more interesting and beautiful than I expected. So many of our activities involved us being outdoors, and I know they would have been even better had we had warmer weather. Also, had we visited closer to spring/summer the Hang Sơn Đoòng Cave would have been open for us to visit.
I would have kept up with the blog posts, not rented the scooter on the beach in Zanzibar, spent more time volunteering and spent more time listening to podcasts rather than listening to the same songs on my iPod over and over.
What to Change for Year 2
In the coming year, I would like to put a great deal more effort into improving my relationship with Heather. Also, I would like to put a lot more effort into our blog, by writing more posts promptly and featuring more of our photography.
Focus on the now, instead of worrying about being behind on the blog posts or what we may have missed by leaving a location without seeing “everything.”
I would like to find and choose more ethical, responsible and eco-friendly vendors and experiences.
Enjoy more podcasts. I am an addict.
Goals for the Coming Year
My travel goals for the upcoming year are to finally make it to Australia and New Zealand and to see more of South America.
Volunteer more and highlight great local organization giving back to their community.
Get to Australia, New Zealand and see a few more African countries.
Meet more people. We met some incredible locals and travelers over the past 12 months. I want to get out and meet more like minded, funny folks.
Not an easy question for me to answer, I have laughed so many times on this adventure. If I am trying to think of the time I laughed the hardest, it was probably when our friend Charis, whom we met in Malawi, was telling us stories.
Matt dancing is always funny to me.
Matt stepping in fresh cow poop in the middle of an empty street in Sri Lanka was funny.
I agree with Matt. Charis was the funniest person we met all year. Cheers to Charis.