Reviewing 2012: Did That All Really Happen?

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.

Warsaw, Poland
 

January

 
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.
 

February

 
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.

Batumi, Georgia
 

March

 
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.
 

April

 
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.

Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
 

May

 
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.
 

June

 
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.

Shing, Tajikistan
 

July

 
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…
 

August

 
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.

Bukhara, Uzbekistan
 

September

 
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.
 

October-November

 
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.
 

December

 
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!

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5 thoughts on “Reviewing 2012: Did That All Really Happen?”

  1. Wow, whata great wrap up. I am so happy you found a gre job and will finally be able to set down your roots in January. I hope this is not the end of you blogging but if so, I will miss reading about your life and adventures. Happy 2013.

  2. Katie,

    What an honest account:

    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.”

    Well, we have been home less than a month, but I am finding this to be true for me too! Actually, this happened to me a decade ago when I spent a year studying abroad and visiting various Western European destinations. I remember being so heart broken to experience how apathetic everyone seemed. Perhaps this is one of the hardest won long-term travel lessons…

    This time around, I dedicated a reasonable amount of effort mentally preparing for this seeming lack of interest (and I still find it a little hard to stomach). Nevertheless, for me the incongruence in thought and feeling still occurs as I frequently mutter these same words “yes, it was amazing!” I mean, it was amazing, but I feel terrible saying it now…how could that be?

    Here’s my take…

    On one hand, how do you really share everything you lived throughout a year in a brief conversation? Especially when you haven’t yet processed all those lessons and emotions yourself? You can’t! I suggest in many cases the experience was great, but the story isn’t (you had to be there).

    Let’s say your stories are amazing, and you are the world’s best story teller…if you are like me, you’ve more than once suffered through somebody else’s stack of holiday photos. Usually you connect with just one or two of the first photos you see. Then you sit through the rest out of social obligation. I’d bet many people ask about your trip out of this same social obligation.

    I know, your saying even my closest friends and family are uninterested?!? That sucks! Don’t make me believe that these relationships are far less evolved than I thought! I’m not proposing this is true either.

    My final explanation is this…your adventure makes other people feel insufficient, and they don’t like feeling that way so they avoid the conversation.

    Weather it is apathy, social obligation, insecurity or a great experience that makes a bad story – I think that most of us who experience long-term travel face the disappointing reality that those long inspired conversations we imagined (“oh I can’t wait to tell so-and-so about this. I bet they will be so excited/interested/repulsed”) rarely take place.

    And my unsolicited advice…

    Practice Empathy, Compassion and Curiosity
    If we empathize with others, and show them compassion then it becomes easier to accept the conversation-ending effect that our travels have. Instead, leverage the curiosity that your travels inspired to explore their story a bit more deeply. Even though everyone is hesitant to share (“my story is nothing compared to what you have been doing”) they will respond to a genuine interest in them because we all love it when people are genuinely interested in our lives – no matter how simple or complex our situation might be.

    Give Yourself Permission
    The other thing you can do is relish the emotions you experience when you reminisce about your travels as unique gifts the universe has given to you and you alone. You have every right to continue to extract the passion, excitement, freedom, peace, and happiness that your memories provide — guilt free!

    Never mind that other’s are averse to hearing about your adventure. There’s something unique about what you have done, and it’s ok if you are the only one who realizes the benefits – even though it may sometimes feel isolating.

    Accept the Gift
    On occasion you will find those people who are comfortable enough to ask about your travels. When these people come along you can smile deeply and share un-abashedly because they are gifts from the universe too!

    Happy New Year,

    ~Matt

  3. “So, how was your trip?”

    “It was great. …So, how’s your job/family/girlfriend?”

    Hahaha, that’s pretty much how most of my conversations have been about my adventure. I’ve felt very much the same way you’ve described when talking about it, either not being sincere or feeling like I’m bragging by talking too much about it.

    I plan to follow your lead and do a similar recap/reflection post to try and wrap my head around what really happened over the past year. Likewise, I’m not entirely sure where my blog will go in 2013. But we’ll see what happens.

    Happy Living,

    Chris

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