Is it already time again for the annual blog post? My, how it passes quickly.
It feels like 2018 was another banner year, full of fulfilling projects and exciting travels and a lot of time with friends across the globe. (Apologies to my family, who I thoroughly neglected this year.)
As with similar posts in 2015, 2016, and 2017 I like to try to find time at the conclusion of each year to look back and where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to for the past 365, a round-up of sorts but also an expression of appreciation for this life that I lead and which continues to make all these travels and adventures possible, and a look forward to the coming year’s plans and aspirations.
I’ve chosen below not necessarily my favorite photo from a given month, but the one that most captures at a glance the tone or activity of that moment in time. Some positive, some reflective, some defining. (If you’re just looking for pretty pictures I took this year, you can also see those on my Instagram or Facebook Page now and going forward).
First though, cause I’m that kind of person, some stats:
14 countries visited (4 of those new to me – Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia)
51,010 miles flown on 13 airlines over 50 flights.
217 nights away my apartment (why do I pay rent, again?)
Something like 26,806 photos taken (of which only 7,202 made it into the archive but a far smaller sliver of that have seen the light of the web).
I’ve done another shockingly bad job of updating this page throughout 2018, obviously, and that doesn’t look set to change in the immediate future. I do still publish freelance articles on other publications from time to time, though, and I’ve included some links herein to pubs from this year as appropriate.
As you may recall, New Year’s Eve 2017 found me in Moscow’s Red Square (well, or just adjacent in Hunter’s Row, but close enough) after a night at the Bolshoi, straining to catch the tops of the fireworks past the next row of buildings on Red Square. It was a limited success, but a great trip nonetheless. We continued on to Saint Petersburg, drank all the coffee and craft beers and eat all the pelmeni and Georgian food we could find, and occasionally even stopped somewhere cultural. It was an actual vacation – though also some small preparation for trip coming up just a month later.
February – Vacation in Istanbul & Return to Russia
Istanbul, on the other hand, was pure vacation. I’m certain we did exciting cultural stuff, and we definitely ate some really amazing food, but what I remember the most are that it was five lazy days wandering aimlessly through beautiful neighborhoods in one of the greatest cities of the world. I know I’ve said this again and again, but if you’ve never been to Istanbul then you’re really missing out. It’s a place that even my jaded and travel-hardened heart melts for.
Later in February – just in time to miss Valentine’s Day, in fact – I headed back to Moscow and Petersburg to show around a group of students for 8 days. An easy excuse to spend more time in both cities, especially as I’ve really spent so little time in Russia and definitely want to find more reasons to visit.
As mentioned in 2017 I’d researched a Lonely Planet guidebook to Texas, which published in February. Check out Lonely Planet: Texas and Pocket Austin if you’re heading that way.
An odd addition to my travel calendar, I ended up back in Europe this year retracing some of the important battles of WWI and WWII across northern France and Belgium. I’ve visited both before, of course, but as a much younger traveler and with much younger eyes, so it was a pleasure to have an opportunity to spend time in both; made even more poignant by the looming 100-year anniversary of Armistice Day that would be commemorated in November.
I also spent some time in March touring the regions of Kyrgyzstan on a work trip to train partners on how to make topographic maps – a nice little capstone to several years of work on a project to make new trekking maps in the country, and surrounded by such a great crew of colleagues to boot. Good fun, but I don’t think I have any photos of these weeks?
Guys. I spent like 6 weeks in Tibet this year. I was there once before, years ago in 2011 as a budget traveler, and ran as quickly as possible through Lhasa and the immediate surroundings to keep costs down. What joy, then, to go back this year with my own hired driver and guide to explore at length. April was all about Eastern Tibet, regions that have long been closed to foreigners and are still pretty far off the foreign traveler radar. It wasn’t always good, but it’s always something exciting.
Touristy is a relative term, here. Chinese travelers can go anywhere and anytime they want in Tibet, but for foreigners it’s all strict schedules and constant accompaniment. So, May was in the ‘more touristy’ bits of Tibet including Lhasa and Namtso… but it’s not exactly Paris, you know?
As a bonus, I ended the month in Chengdu, my favorite Chinese city by far. Long has it been an exciting place for food and culture, but this trip introduced me to the beer and coffee scenes as well. Thanks mostly to a really delightful local friend, I always feel like I’m jumping right into the heart of Chengdu as soon as I land – and it’s the time of city that repays many times over any time you put into it. It is, to me, a central part of the China experience.
Any summer that starts with hiking for work in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan is already a good summer. Finishing up the last stages of that trail mapping project I mentioned earlier meant heading into the Jumgal region of Kyrgyzstan for a week or so of hiking. I lucked out – not only were my friends at Journal of Nomads along – but the weather was great and the company was good and I couldn’t have asked for a better week of nature to start the summer. I did end up running around at 2am in my underwear getting soaked in a cold rain and also accidentally destroying a village outhouse, but those are probably stories for another time.
Holy crap. Every four years, I basically lose a summer of my life staying up all hours to watch the World Cup. This year, I just happened to do so from the stadium at several of the games.
France v Australia, at which point I declared France was going to win the tournament.
Iran v Spain, in which the Iranian fans lived up to all the positive stereotypes I’ve ever heard about the country.
Poland v Colombia, in which Kazan was a sea of yellow Colombia jerseys for what seemed like a beautiful eternity.
Korea v Germany, in which Korea inexplicably handed the Germans a first-round exit from the tournament.
France v Argentina, which was one of the most beautiful games of soccer I’ve ever had the privilege to see, and when I definitely knew France was going to win the tournament.
I mean – what an experience. I’m not certain I’ll head to Doha in 2022, but Russia was such a positive experience that I’ll certainly look into whether I can fit any World Cup for the rest of my days into my travel schedule. For certain you can expect to see me in North American in 2026.
At some point in there NOMADasaurus showed up to Kyrgyzstan and we hung out, as well, but mostly it was soccer madness and then nose down trying to finish up a bunch of projects by the end of the month.
Yes, again. Look, it’s a really cool city. I spent a week in the city with my girlfriend and her daughter (both of whom desperately needed a vacation) showing them around one of my favorite places and meeting up with one of our favorite couples. In short, another vacation; which is really starting to sound like a bit of a theme for the year, isn’t it?
Despite having work to finish up in Bishkek, I also managed to sneak away at the end of August for a quick hike to Ratsek Hut with the half of Journal of Nomads that I didn’t hike with in May – one of these days I’m going to get them into the same mountains at the same time.
Look, any month that starts with the World Nomad Games, it’s hard to talk about much else. You know? September was super busy, though – started with #WNG and moved directly into a FAM trip with Journal of Nomads, Travel Tramp, JetFarer, and Travels of a Bookpacker across the highlights of Issyk-Kol oblast (a place I’ve come to know well these past few years). One day at home in Bishkek, and then off again – this time to Tajikistan, to scout out out the tourism potential of a beautiful area called the Zerafshan Valley that I very dearly hope to be able to tell you a lot more about in 2019. I spent four nights in my own apartment in September, if that gives you any indication of how busy it was.
October – Lands of Deserts – Jordan and Uzbekistan
A pretty quick trip through Jordan, this time around, though I did at least finally make some time to really wander around Amman at the beginning of the thing. Standard stuff, Petra and Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea, but always a pleasure to be back and especially to pull up a plastic chair in the alley outside Hashem’s for a feast to finish it off.
Uzbekistan, on the other hand, is like an old friend half-forgotten, but one of those rare friendships that can always pick back up even after years away. On the face of it I was there to make a presentation on behalf of Lonely Planet to a USAID conference, but that took about the first afternoon and then I skipped town for Bukhara – long ago my favorite part of the country. This was also the background to an adorbs photo of my girlfriend and I that I posted to my Instagram (for the first time), so there’s that too.
As a good friend pointed out, November was the month I just decided to be super extra and take an extended month-long birthday trip. And extra it was. Mostly I just realized I hadn’t been to a single new country all year and decided to remedy that by bouncing around the Gulf all month. It was awesome.
Started in Dubai with the girlfriend and her daughter then onwards solo to Kuwait (meh), Qatar (surprisingly lively), and Bahrain (definitely meh). Not the most adventure-travel birthday I’ve ever had, but always nice to get out and explore new places to scratch that particular itch.
As a relatively well-traveled American, there’s a major lack of depth on my travel CV that I still find is almost impossible to reconcile: Mexico. I’ve visited once, my first summer back from living in Asia, teaming up with a good friend from college to visit two Mexican fraternity brothers who were home for the summer. And yet, those experiences and connections leave a stronger impression than other places and countries and people where I’ve spent far more time.
This is not the stuff of luxury Mexico vacations, but rather of history and culture and bull fights and street fights and a more than advisable amount of tequila and mezcal. And the center of it all is San Luis Potosi, a close friend and his family, and the significance of personal connections and the impression they leave while traveling.
Though there are any number of touristy things to do in San Luis Potosi, a beautiful old town and plenty of interesting food and art and people and culture. I found and find it notable primarily for one reason: Oscar.
Fraternity brother, tequila lover, dancing dervish, though with admittedly poor taste in soccer teams. The man is many things, but one of them is undoubtedly true above the others in this context: incredible host.
Having just finished traveling with college friend Jenny and two other fraternity brothers for several weeks in Indonesia and Malaysia, idle tourism was no strange thing. San Luis Potosi has plenty of it, and Oscar was more than happy to show us around.
Catholic cathedrals and Old Town architecture. A prison-turned-art center, home to art and creation atop a layer of older pain. Days at Oscar’s health club, ordering Cerveza Victoria by the pool. Museums, theaters, and even more churches. The San Luis Gladiadores, whoI don’t even remember whether they won or lost the match but know for certain that jersey remains hanging well-used in a closet somewhere in Asia or North America.
To end the trip, as one might in Mexico, we went to the local weekend bull fights.
Far more memorable than any moment of tourism and sightseeing however, particularly all these years later, is family and friendship. Connections on the ground while traveling, more than anything, reinforce the importance and beauty of travel. These connections can pop up anywhere, and often do so unexpectedly, but are even sweeter when they cement existing friendships.
This, more than anything, defines my memories of San Luis Potosi. Evenings at Oscar’s family’s house, eating incredible homemade mole (that I’ve still never found a better version of, despite trying as often as possible). Picnicking with the extended family, being embarrassed by Oscar’s entire extended family’s soccer skills (far more impressive than my own rusty attempts, in memory), going out with local friends to San Luis Potosi’s bars and clubs (the song Papa Americano still reminds me of Mexico all these many years alter) and dancing to roaming mariachi bands in the late-night streets.
Even seeing Oscar’s dad’s video speeches in an interactive display in the regional Science Museum – something of a local celebrity, perhaps, or at the very least a local science expert willing and able to pass on knowledge to the rest of the city.
Simple moments, to be sure, and more akin to daily life all around the world than to the ‘transformative travel experiences’ of Instagram and Snapchat. And yet. Aren’t these the moments we treasure the most from travel anywhere in the world? The personal connections who leave impressions that last long after the viewpoints and the meals have all faded far into memory (indeed, I would meet up with Oscar in Budapest several years later to pick up the thread of a friendship that spans years and continents and several distinct versions of each of our selves).
Travel, like life, is best experienced not as a ‘bucket list’ of places to be ticked off along the way but rather as a continuum of contact, a constant evaluation and reevaluation of our relationship with the world around us. I’m sure we all fail at this sometimes – I certainly am guilty, particularly on work-based travels that become a literal checklist of things to see and do – but even just keeping the idea to heart can help to make stronger relationships with the people and places around us as we travel.
In truth, the entirety of my experience of Mexico is founded on moments like these, traveling with Oscar and Gerry and Jenny and Ines across the country in a succession of small but important moments that still stand out years later. Wandering the streets of Zacatecas for a day, being accosted by a rooftop Satan and dancing till midnight in a street parade behind a military band. More dancing in Guanajuato, plus some campus exploration and more impromptu mariachi fun. Even feeling a little heartbroken and a little betrayed in the university town of Puebla.
I can think of no better way to visit the country, in fact. So perhaps it isn’t such a travel oversight after all. Perhaps it’s just another of those countries waiting for a return visit until the moment is right, the proper people are along, and there’s at least a hint of a chance that the return trip can match the experience of the original.
This post is sponsored by Luxury Retreats, but as with all posts on this website, all comments and opinions here are my own.