Thinking about the past year leaves me with very mixed emotions. After being back in the United States for over three months now, it sometimes feels like the nine months before that didn’t even happen. Not being settled in a single place and spending all my time job hunting and doing freelance work means I haven’t had time to myself to really sit back and process everything I experienced during my career break.
And while I haven’t experienced real culture shock, I feel horribly disconnected from people now that I’m home – I don’t have many friends with whom I can talk about my travels. The people who genuinely want to hear about my trip seem to be few and far between and, as I have been out trying to network and socialize, it has proven to be more of a conversation-ender than a conversation-starter. Part of that has been my fault – I don’t know what to say when people throw out the typical “wow, that must have been amazing” response. I nod in agreement and hear myself say “yes, it was amazing.”
But I don’t feel like I’m being sincere. And I don’t know what to say next. And most people don’t have much to ask me in return. And I feel like I’ll come off like I’m bragging if I talk about it too much.
I wasn’t going to write a year-in-review post, but I’m hoping that the process of writing this post will be a little therapeutic – that it will force me to take some time to reflect on where I have been and what I have done over the last year and really appreciate it in a way that I haven’t been able to do since I returned.
I rang in the New Year calmly in Warsaw – with a chilly mix of snow and sleet falling all day, I opted to stay in rather than brave and outdoor concert and fireworks. That was the beginning of my resolution to travel on my terms and not anyone else’s. From Poland, I moved on to Belarus, where my new friend Yuliya introduced me to Minsk before I moved on to cute Grodno and disappointing Brest on my own. Overall, the country completely defied my expectations and got 2012 off to a good start.
In mid-January, I headed to Kiev, where I took some more Russian language lessons, endured another crazy homestay and woke up nine days in a row to snow, snow and more snow! When it eventually stopped snowing, temperatures plunged, but that didn’t stop me from taking a day trip to Chernobyl, which was as educational as it was a little creepy.
By early February, I left Kiev to head west – to Lviv and several small towns in the Carpathians. Despite it being so cold that my camera actually froze, I enjoyed the character and charm of western Ukraine, where everything just felt a little more Ukrainian than Kiev did. I even learned how to paint an egg – although the results were somewhat questionable.
I finally escaped the cold for a week in balmy Moldova (highs in the 30s Fahrenheit!), where I visited the world’s largest underground wine cellar and took a day trip to Transdniestr – a country that doesn’t technically exist. But overall, Moldova just felt a little blah – so I was relieved to head back to Ukraine and sunny Odessa. After a few relaxing days in the popular resort town, I boarded my ferry to cross the Black Sea to Georgia.
I arrived in Batumi, Georgia on Wednesday, March 7 – four days later than originally scheduled. My 137 hour crossing of the Black Sea was possible one of the most stressful experiences of my entire trip, but I was all smiles when I finally set foot in Batumi. And while I had my reservations about taking the overnight train to Tbilisi one night later, it proved to be one of the most fun nights of my trip to that point.
A few days later I made it to Yerevan, Armenia to start five weeks of volunteering with the Armenian Volunteer Corps. My homestay family was amazing (finally!), but I initially struggled to fit in with the rest of the volunteers – as the oldest and only non-ethnic Armenian, I just had a hard time connecting. And despite Armenian lessons twice a week, I couldn’t even begin to grasp the language. A weekend excursion to southern Armenia the last weekend in March, though, seemed to be a turning point.
I eventually found my groove in Yerevan, but by the time I was really starting to connect with some of the other volunteers, it was time for me to move on. My disappointment didn’t last long, though, as I was on my way to Italy for a detour to the Travel Bloggers Unite conference in Umbria! I had a great time catching up with old friends and new – and a little taste of Western civilization for a week didn’t hurt either!
Then it was on to Istanbul – another detour from my original itinerary. I was overwhelmed by how touristy it was, but still enjoyed the Ottoman architecture and exploring the city with several other travel bloggers.
I spent the first part of May traveling east from Istanbul back to Georgia to pick up my original itinerary where I left off. The stops I made along the way were some of my favorites – Amasya, Trabzon and Ani. I also discovered that traveling by bus in Turkey may be better than taking the bus in just about any other country. And as I crossed the border from Turkey into Georgia, I encountered my first true scam artist – and proudly managed to fend him off. While my two previous stops in Georgia were in transit, I finally spent two straight weeks in the country, exploring Tbilisi, hiking in Mestia, visiting Stalin’s hometown, and checking out monasteries and wineries in Kakheti.
After numerous warnings, I was nervous about whether they would let me into Azerbaijan with my Armenian visa, but I made it and spent an interesting ten days in the country. I arranged for homestays in Lekit and Sheki through Azerbaijan’s Community Based Tourism organization and then lucked out by staying with a friend of a Twitter acquaintance in Baku – in one of the nicest apartments I’ve ever seen. I spent a good chunk of my time in Baku chasing down my visas for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, but did manage to explore a bit of the city and the Old Town. A weekend trip to the mountain village of Lahij, though, convinced me that the best of Azerbaijan was outside of the capital.
After yet another stop through Georgia, I headed back to Armenia for a week. It wasn’t the experience I anticipated when I planned my return trip, but it was great nonetheless. I got to know many of my fellow volunteers better, explore much more of the country, drank a lot of vodka and left with a smile on my face.
And then it was time to start the Central Asia phase of my trip – which scared the heck out of me. I arrived in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on June 17 with less than a warm welcome (although plenty of warm weather!). A few days later, I started a volunteer stint with the Zerafshan Tourism Development Association, living with two different families for two weeks each and teaching them English. The teaching was stressful and I felt horribly underprepared, but my first host family completely embraced me, sewing me a traditional Tajik dress and shedding tears when I left.
In early July, I moved on to my second family in Tajikistan, who unfortunately weren’t quite so welcoming. With no internet access for the first time in about a decade, I at least had plenty of time to read, write and hike. And I left Tajikistan with a good feel for traditional village life – and a much better appreciation for the comforts I enjoy back home.
In mid-July, I made the journey from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan and then hung out in a nice, air-conditioned hotel in Tashkent for 10 days while I waited to get my visa to Kazakhstan. While I had hoped to have more time to explore the Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, I got about a day and a half for each – Samarkand was slightly underwhelming while I had a blast in Bukhara hanging out with a Mongol Rally team and exploring a 16th century madrassah. Then, it was on to Turkmenistan…
Crossing from Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan seemed to take forever, but luckily my guide Oleg was there to greet me as soon as I got to the Turkmenistan side of the border. I spent the next ten days discovering the country’s Silk Road legacy, exploring the surreal capital of Ashgabat and camping under the stars at the Yangykala Canyon and the most touristy place in Turkmenistan – the Darvaza Gas Crater. I also endured long, long days riding through the desert in a not-always-air-conditioned 4WD. By the time I made it back to Uzbekistan, I was completely exhausted. I had no desire to do or see anything in Khiva and even by the time I reached Nukus, I could only muster the energy to explore its intriguing art museum.
Traveling in Central Asia felt like running a marathon and as I entered Kazakhstan, I could only hope I was hitting my stride into the home stretch. Indeed, serendipity intervened in Aktau and that set the stage for several enjoyable adventures in Kazakhstan, including a pilgrimage to the underground mosque at Beket Ata, a day trip to the Aral Sea and a hike in the Zhabagly Nature Reserve. I made it to the former capital, Almaty, by the end of my month to celebrate my birthday and Kazakhstan’s Constitution Day.
I kicked off my last month on the road by entering Kyrgyzstan – my easiest border crossing in Central Asia due to the fact that they did away with visa requirements for most Westerners less than two months before I arrived. After hanging out with some cool American guys in Bishkek, I flew down to Osh for a couple days before moving on to Karakol. After a day trip to Jeti Oghuz and a visit to the Sunday animal market, I tentatively started the journey to Kochkor, despite numerous signs telling me I should change my plans. A fortuitous stop in the town of Bokonbaevo led to me connecting with three French tourists who became my companions for the next four days. We enjoyed an eagle hunting demonstration, stayed in a yurt camp, visited a salt lake and toured a holy site, where we had tea with a local family. Then, three of us went back to Karakol for some hiking and a crazy night of vodka drinking that none of us really remember. Perhaps a fitting way to wind up my travels in the former Soviet Union?
Of course, I wasn’t quite done yet. After a couple more days in Bishkek (including an amazing haircut at the bazaar!), I flew off to Riga for two days before arriving in Barcelona – the true beginning of the end. Attending the TBEX conference in Girona was a blast, but also made me realize that I don’t want to make my blog my business. And by the time I had indulged in Barcelona’s chocolate and learned more about Gaudi than I ever thought I could, I was ready to return home.
I spent the first couple weeks of October in Minnesota, preparing for Meet, Plan, Go! Minneapolis, spending some quality time with my niece and nephew and applying for a couple dozen jobs. By the end of the month, I was back in Chicago, interviewing for several positions and optimistic I would soon be gainfully employed. But as I spent the next six weeks bouncing between Chicago, Minneapolis and even Boston, I began to realize that landing a job might take a lot longer than I hoped – and fear and frustration began to set in. As crazy as it may sound, I wondered whether taking my trip had been a huge mistake.
Christmas came early for me as I got not one, but THREE job offers within the span of a week – and won a 21-day trip to Nepal through the Passports with Purpose fundraiser! So after feeling so unsettled for the last three months, I will finally have a place to call home again in January – and will finally be getting a paycheck again! And, while I initially figured I wouldn’t plan anything major in terms of travel for 2013, I have an amazing trip to look forward to next October!
Finally, I’m not sure exactly where I’ll go with this blog into 2013, but I thank all of you for following along with my journey over the last year through all of the ups and the downs. Your support and comments mean a lot and I hope you all had an amazing year!