The Relative Future

17, 15, 13, 10, 9.75, 8, 7, 6, 1 hours ahead of Washington DC.

I literally spent the entirety of this trip in the future, living on a plane of time that home could never quite catch up to. I’ve always found the concept of time zones fascinating. They exist to provide common ground for people; to make sure the sun rises in the AM and sets in the PM. It means we all may be on different times, but it also means that we share the approximate same experience of a day.

I went on this trip because I wanted to see the world, because I wanted to see what I hadn’t seen. I went on this trip to see if I could adjust what makes me comfortable, to see if I could live on the road for five weeks. I went on this trip because I wanted to see how the world works.

I don’t want to act like I now know how the world works, that I’ve got it all figured out. But at the same time I saw flashes of how people work, glimpses of a universal human experience. We all worry about the same things, we all find the same things funny, we all have different tastes in food, in culture, in books, in music, in movies, in TV. Nothing changes those things, but how we perceive it is shaped by the context of how we live.

That’s the true fear of homogenization. It’s not that we don’t all find the same things funny, it’s that there’s only one joke that we all laugh at. Not that we don’t all find solace in music, but that there’s only one song we listen to. Not that we don’t all have a word for “hello”, but that that word is always the same. Some may see this softening of cultural differences as good, as all of us getting closer together. From what I’ve seen we already share the experience that matters; what colors us, what makes us different, adds spice to human existence.

So I went on this trip to confirm this. I suspected it was true, but I needed to collect evidence. I thought I knew it, but I needed to see it. What I found was that it’s not really a matter of confirming anything, rather it’s a matter of just letting these things be. Observing and acknowledging rather than categorizing and confirming.

I can’t pretend like I know this is true, but at least I have a better idea that it is. According to a clock, I spent the entirety of this trip living in the future, but according to what I experienced the sun still rose in the AM and the sun still set in the PM. Life and how we live it isn’t a matter of differences, it’s a matter of similarities. We all may live in the future or the past relative to each other, but when it comes to a shared human experience, the sun still rises in the morning and sets in the evening.

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Six Days in… Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires doubles as not only the last stop of our around-the-world trip, but also as the longest we’re spending in any one place. For six days, we ate tender Argentine steak, drank the rich Malbec wine, and partook in the spectacular music scene of one of the world’s greatest cities.

Getting There

There are always pretty good fares from the continental U.S. to South America (check on some of American Airlines’ super saver deals if you’re looking to use miles). But as with Paris, this was part of our larger around-the-world trip. If you’re interested in reading about how we booked that trip, we’ve already done a pretty thorough job of documenting it.

As is true with many airports, EZE lies well outside the city limits. Unlike some of the ones we’ve been to recently, there’s very spotty public transportation to and from. Your best bet is probably to just bite the bullet and pay for a cab into the city. It shouldn’t be that expensive (around $30–40) and it’s probably worth it. We were lucky to have our host offer to come pick us up at the airport and drop us off at the place we’re staying.

Staying There

I’d mentioned in my Paris report that I always like to stay in an Airbnb, if possible. For those that don’t know, Airbnb is a site where locals can advertise rooms, apartments, or even entire houses to rent. Many people equate it with couch surfing, but honestly, it’s much closer to a hotel than that free alternative. Most cities I’ve seen have offers for entire homes or apartments, which to me, is even more preferable than a hotel. If you’re lucky and book as early as you can, you can often stay in prime spots for much less than a hotel would cost.

We booked this Airbnb pretty early in our planning and we had good communication with our host, Ruy. The apartment itself is everything you’d look for when visiting a city: not only close to several restaurants, banks, and public transportation options, but also within walking distances to many of the things you’d want to see in Buenos Aires. We stayed there for all five nights and the accommodations were more than adequate.

The only potential downside is that we were only offered one key, which was necessary to both get into the apartment and out of it. That meant that we were pretty much sticking together for the bulk of this trip unless we planned ahead enough to figure out a way around this problem.1 There was also one morning where we didn’t have hot water, but it was back on in a couple of hours, so that’s not really anything to worry about, at all.

Being There

When I think of Buenos Aires, I think of steak, wine, and tango. That wasn’t far off. The city is lined with parrillas (steak houses) all offering their own take on the staple and each offering their own particular version of Argentina’s delicious Malbec wine. We’ll offer up some suggestions below, but honestly, it’s tough to go wrong here. Everywhere we ate was delicious.

Historically, the bulk of my knowledge of Argentina centered on Juan Peron and his wife Eva, also known as Evita. The politics and intrigue of the real story play out as well as an Shakespearean tragedy, but even sixty years after her death, it’s completely obvious how much of a role she stills plays in the minds of Argentine people. It’s impossible to escape her visage on the sides of buildings and many of the city’s most popular destinations have an Evita aspect to them, as well.

Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada
The hub of all political life in Buenos Aires. And I do mean all. Casa Rosada is the mansion and political residence of Argentina’s president (completely analogous to our White House). We didn’t get a chance to tour it, but saw the spectacular building from outside its iron fences.

But where all the official policies of the country may originate from Casa Rosada, the feelings of the people are demonstrated in Plaza de Mayo. As we were there, things were being cordoned off for what looked to be a huge demonstration later that day. Asking around confirmed that this was not an unusual event; the Argentine people love to protest and they love to do it in Plaza de Mayo. While there were several people camped out in the plaza, I never felt unsafe or as if anything bad would happen. It was completely evident that this is just a part of Argentine life; I just remained aware of my surroundings (as I do in any big city) and was completely fine.

Bicentennial Museum
Just behind Casa Rosada is one of the better museums I’ve been to on this trip. The Bicentennial Museum was developed from the old Argentina customs office that was recovered and then renovated to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Argentina. It takes a a chronological look at early 19th century Argentine life all the way through its current presidency. While most of the exhibits are in Spanish, the pictures and artifacts alone make this worth a trip.

La Recoleta and Recoleta Cemetery
Probably Buenos Aires swankiest neighborhood and its most famous sight. La Recoleta tracks well with some of the most yuppie neighborhoods I’ve seen: farmer’s and artistan’s markets line the streets, microbreweries seem to pop up everywhere, and outdoor seating subsume every available sidewalk in the area. It’s very much worth taking a morning and walking around, the area is incredibly beautiful and it reinforces the idea of Buenos Aires as a modern city.

As in life, death, I guess. Recoleta Cemetery is famous for its decadent monuments to those that have died. It’s almost entirely privately funded, and it shows. Many of Argentina’s most famous people have been buried here, including, funnily enough, Evita herself.2 Tall monuments line what can only be described as streets and streets of tombs, each one clearly trying to outdo the one that came before it. Recoleta is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and absolutely worth a trip. There’s an iPhone app and several maps available for guiding viewers through the cemetery, but unless you’re well-versed in Argentine history, culture, and politics, most people will be completely unknown (at least they were to me). There’s no signage or anything explaining each tomb, though, so if you want a little context, going on one of the guided tours is your best bet. At the very least, grab a map and ask one of the guides to point you in the direction of Evita’s tomb.

La Brigada Parrilla
One of San Telmo (a Buenos Aires neighborhood) most famous steakhouses, La Brigada did not disappoint. We were treated to one of, if not the best steaks and bottles of wine I’ve ever had; it was so tender that the restaurant literally only provides a spoon to cut it with. I’m not much of a food critic, but trust me, go to this place. Prices were a bit higher than normal and more in line with what you’d see at a nice steakhouse in the U.S. We made a reservation before going, so it may be a good idea to do the same. As with most places that serve dinner in Argentina, the restaurant didn’t even open until 8pm (Those Argentines are a late-eating bunch).

El Tigre and Delta
I love going to cities, but going to the small towns outside of large places tends to be more my speed. El Tigre was about an hour train ride outside of Buenos Aires and was one of my favorite places I’ve had the opportunity walk around. (Mike and I repeatedly remarked it reminded us a lot of Napier, New Zealand.

While it was nice to stroll around in a small town, people mainly go to El Tigre for the river and its delta. After flooding destroyed several parts of the city, the people decided to just go with it and form their town around the water. While El Tigre has a main commercial area linked by normal asphalt streets, the bulk of the residential area is linked by waterways; everyone lives right on the river and uses boats to get to the main section of town. We had the opportunity to take a ride on one of the commercial boats to see the some of this area. It was a great contrast from the city and I highly recommend it, if you have the time.

Evita Museum
Much like the bicentennial museum, very well put together. But your enjoyment will probably depend on how interested you are in Eva Peron. It’s fairly small, so it’s easy to get through, but the museum is laser focused on all things Evita (as it probably should be).

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good: Buenos Aires loves it protests and that extends past the kind where you air your grievances in Plaza de Mayo. We had the opportunity to see some local bands play late one evening. The theme: all were repurposed songs from failed revolutions. I couldn’t understand much of what was being sung, but the energy coming from the bands absolutely couldn’t be matched. This seems like it’s done fairly regularly, so if you get a chance, head down to the Centro de difusión Cultural Severino DiGiovanni.

Good: Buenos Aires is known for its food, so we spent the better portion of two days eating our way through the city.

Bad Eating probably kept us from seeing all we should. Oh well, priorities!

Bad: Remember how I said I think of steak, wine, and tango when I think of Argentina? Yeah, well, we never got to see any tango shows. That’s totally on us and there are several every night for you to see. Be better than us and go see one!

Ugly: In Recoleta Cemetery, there were several of the tombs and monuments that had fallen into various states of disrepair. As in they’d completely crumbed in on themselves. In what can probably be described as a bit of karmic justice, families are required to pay a monthly upkeep fee for the cemetery to make sure that the relative’s final resting place receives regular maintenance. If a family doesn’t pay (for any reason), the tomb is ignored. One of the most shocking sights was to see all of this wealth in life and in burial, be completely for nothing twenty years after a family stopped paying the monthly maintenance fee.

Tip of the Trip

One thing our host told us as we were coming into the city: Buenos Aires is well known for its Italian food. I’ve never been to Italy (though, that should be remedied next month), but the Italian is absolutely spectacular, if not the best I’ve ever had. There’s plenty of restaurants around; make sure to take at least one night and have some pasta somewhere. (Supposedly the pizza is also really good, but we didn’t have a chance to try it.)

Come on, just tell me what to do already! (TL;DR)

See this:
Plaza de Mayo
Recoleta Cemetery
El Tigre and Delta

Stay here:
Airbnb has many places, including the one where we stayed.

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p>Eat this:
La Brigada
Desnivel

  1. Edit: We asked our host as we were leaving if there were additional keys, turns out there were. He probably still should have offered them to us in the beginning, but you can ask him about them if you stay in the same place
  2. There’s some controversy about Evita being buried here. Rightfully so. Before marrying Peron, she came from extremely humble beginnings and spent most of her time as First Lady of Argetina speaking for the rights of the poor. Recoleta Cemetery is completely counter to everything she stood for.

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Four Days In…Paris

Don’t worry, everyone. After weeks of writing, long, flowery, probably over-descriptive posts on our around-the-world trip, I’m going to revert to something a bit more practical for our description of Paris: namely our version of the ubiquitous trip report.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, our crack Leap Forward team 1 likes to do things a bit differently. Lot’s of great people have written some great things about Paris (The Points Guy, Mommy Points, Ernest Hemingway), but we want to try and put our own spin on it and on trip reports in general.2 The format and what exactly we write in these things are still in flux, so if there’s something you’d like to see that you’re not getting, make sure to let us know.

So without further ado, let’s kick off the first of our “Four Days In…” series with Four Days in…Paris!

Paris is one of those cities that everyone says to visit. I knew I’d get there eventually, but it kept getting pushed further and further down the list. It wasn’t in the initial plan for our around-the-world trip, but in order to make Madagascar and Buenos Aires work, we had to come through Paris twice, so it made sense just to schedule a longer period of time to see it.

Getting There

As I mentioned before, it was part of our around-the-world trip. I was there for four days total; one day after flying from Moscow on my way to Madagascar and three days after flying from Madagascar on my way to Buenos Aires. Paris is not that difficult to get to, but it can be expensive. Weather during the winter is hit or miss and the throngs of tourists during the summer scream “stay away” to me. Do this: go in early-to-mid spring. You may hit a day of rain (as we did), but odds are you’ll have some great weather (mostly sunny, highs around 70, lows around 40).

Getting from the airport (Charles de Gaulle- CDG) is an easy 40-minute train ride right into the heart of the city. It costs about 10 euro, but is clean, comfortable and runs fairly often. There are other ways to get into the city, but this is the one that you’re going to want to take.

Staying There

You’re probably going to pay a lot of money to stay in Paris. You can do it cheaply, but I’ve never been the biggest fan of hostels.3 If you’ve got hotel points or free hotel stays, this is the place to use them.

We stayed for three nights at three separate hotels: the Hilton Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome, and Trianon Palace (a Hilton-Waldorf Astoria property in Versailles). We’ll have a more in-depth review of the properties at a later date, but here’s the basics on each one:

The airport Hilton was more out of convenience. With only about 22 hours in Paris before our relatively early boarding for the flight to Madagascar, we didn’t want to stray too far from de Gaulle. It hit all the things you’d expect an international hotel chain to hit: free breakfast and a lounge for diamond members, large rooms, and impeccable service. Mike used 40,000 HHonors points to book the room.

The Park Hyatt Paris Vendome was a little bit different; it’s widely considered to be one of (if not the best) Hyatt properties in the world. It’s located fairly close to several of the major Parisian sights (it’s within walking distance of the Louvre museum). But if you’re staying there, the hotel in and of itself is part of the experience. It’s lavishly decorated and the staff are extremely considerate and efficient with all requests. We stayed in a suite, paid for by one of the two free nights given to me by applying for the Chase Hyatt credit card.4

Our final day in Paris, we spent in Versailles and stayed at Trianon Palace, a Hilton-Waldorf Astoria property. It was literally a palace that was part of Versailles. Mike’s diamond status with Hilton got us an upgrade to the main property, as well as free drinks in the bar (which at 20 euro apiece, I wasn’t about to buy otherwise). He used Citi ThankYou points to book the room at full price, so not only was the room free for us, but he also earned points for staying there. Not bad for what used to be a retreat for the King of France!

Being There

Four days in Paris is enough to see the major things, but you’re still going to feel like you need to come back and spend more time. I prioritized seeing the major sights while there:

Notre Dame
The famous cathedral didn’t disappoint, but it was pretty much exactly what you’re expecting: a giant Catholic Church with stunning gothic architecture. Don’t miss the gargoyles on either side!

Pantheon
Originally built as a church, but now functions as a mausoleum. They’re currently doing construction on the dome, so it was hidden from view.

The Eiffel Tower
The most well-known symbol of Paris. It’s similar to the Washington Monument, the St. Louis Gateway Arch, the London Eye, and other tall structures that people probably pay too much to go up in. You need to go there and see it, but I opted not to pay to go up in it. I don’t want to seem to cynical here, though. It’s a spectacular piece of architecture and you really need to see it in person to appreciate that.

Paris Catacombs
Carved from the limestone that built the city, the catacombs house the dead of millions of Parisians far underground. If you’ve been to catacombs in other cities, you know what to expect. But what you won’t expect is the sheer size of it. I walked for nearly an hour, surrounded by stacks of bones higher than my head. They only let in 200 people at a time, so the line can get a bit long. That’s a blessing and a curse; without the line snaking around the circle, it would have been almost impossible to find!

The Louvre Museum
If it’s possible to undersell the most famous sight in (arguably) the world’s most famous city, the Louvre is undersold. I had one art history class in college, which gave me enough knowledge to know what I need to see when I go places like the Louvre. On Wednesdays, the museum is open until 9pm (it normally closes at 5pm), so I assumed giving myself four hours should be able to let me hit everything I needed to see. Wrong. Everywhere I went I kept seeing pieces of art and history that I’d at least heard of in passing. By the time I needed to leave, there were still several things I wanted to see that I didn’t get a chance to. If for nothing else, I’m going to have to come back to Paris to see more of the Louvre.

Versailles
Best known as the palace of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI (before the last had an unfortunate run-in with a guillotine), it stands today as one of the most decadent examples of monarchy-era France. It will take a full day to get out to see it and if you’ve got other things you want to see in Paris, you can prioritize those. But if you’ve got the time, it’s absolutely worth it. The train runs out to Versailles, so while it takes some time to get out of the city, it’s fairly easy to do. We’ve seen a lot of big important houses on our trip around the world, this was probably the last one and it did not disappoint.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Good: As I mentioned before, the Louvre. If you’ve got one day in Paris, this is what you go see. Even if you’re not a fan of art or history, it’s pretty difficult not to be wowed by how many things you’ve heard of are in one place. There’s literally miles and miles of art to see, so you may want to do a bit of planning in advance. There’s an iPhone app that will guide you through much of what you need to see while your there. It’s $2, but I don’t know if I’d been able to see half of what I did without it.

Bad: Not to dwell only on the Louvre, but probably the second most famous piece, the Winged Victory of Samthrace, was being restored while I was there, so I didn’t get to see it.

Bad: There’s very little in the way of explanations for any of the pieces in the Louvre and what there is, is totally in French. Without a guide or without the iPhone app, you’re literally just looking at painting and sculptures without any context.

Ugly: From this picture, where would you expect the tour of Versailles to start?

If you said the giant gold archways in the center of the palace or any one of the smaller stone archways that line the edges, you’d be wrong.

If you said that tiny entrance in the middle of the three arches off to the far right that had absolutely no markings, you’re obviously cheating (or have been there before). We walked through some of the smaller rooms for about half an hour, wondering “is this it?”, before finding the actual start of the tour. Come on guys, let’s get some better signage!

Tip of the Trip

You’re going to be waiting in lines quite a bit in Paris. To avoid one of them, you may be able to buy your ticket to Versailles at your hotel (if you’re staying in Versailles). If not, swing by the gift shop (it’s on the left, across the street, at the top of the hill, before you enter the preliminary gates). You can buy your ticket there for the same price, sans line waiting.

Come on, just tell me what to do already! (TL;DR)

See this:
Notre Dame
The Louvre
The Eiffel Tower
Versailles

Stay here:
Park Hyatt Paris Vendome (if you can swing it)

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  1. Not our Leap Forward team on crack
  2. Knowing me, I’ll probably write a thousand-word post on why we’re doing it this way, so for those of you who do like me over analyzing things, just hold tight.
  3. my personal favorite way to stay is Airbnb
  4. If you’re a platinum or below, you get two free nights at any Hyatt just for applying for the credit card and meeting the minimum spend. If you’re a Diamond member, you get two free nights in a suite.

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Madagascar: LEMURS!

Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to see Lemurs dance. That’s fine. I understand. I honestly don’t have much to add, except lemurs are awesome. Really awesome.

Before we get to the lemur pictures, let me give you at least a bit of context. We had to head three or four hours outside of Antananarivo to see them in their natural habitat. Lemurs only exist in Madagascar; you can’t find them (naturally) anywhere else. We visited two different parks with different species of lemurs. One was a jungle where we hiked for several hours through dense forest to get to the area where a family of lemurs lived. These lemurs could not survive in captivity, so it was impossible to see them anywhere but here.

The other park was more of a lemur reserve, where people could come to see them in a more contained area. It wasn’t a zoo; this was still an area where lemurs lived fairly naturally. It allowed people to get pretty close to them.

We got pretty close to them.

BONUS: CROCODILES

We also got to go see some crocodiles. And feed them. They were not as cute as the lemurs and they did not sit on our heads.

Despite some trouble, Madagascar is an absolutely incredible place and we’re thrilled that we included it on our itinerary. Our one recommendation is to make sure to do a bit of planning before you come. If you stay at the right hotel (such as the one we stayed at!) and book your drivers and guides in advance, it can be one of the most spectacular trips you’ve ever taken.

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Madagascar: Keep Your Head Down and Do Not Get Far From Me

Black smoke billowed through my halfway-down window. Something was wrong with the car. Again. We’d gone three or four hours outside of Antananarivo to see some lemurs, but we’d stopped many more times for oil and water for the car than for pictures. It wasn’t the first time we’d had to pull over, but now that we were on our way back to our hotel, it should be one of the last.

The smoke was coming from the front-left tire and the driver quickly pulled off the main road onto a small dirt cul-de-sac that often lined the roads of rural Madagascar. In a combination of English, French, and Malgasy, we gathered it had something to do with one of the brake pads. The driver and guide we hired, popped open the trunk, pulled out several tools, took off the tire, and inspected the damage.

“Just a few minutes and we’ll be back on our way”

Mike and I got out of the car and looked at our surroundings. There wasn’t much for as far as we could see, but honestly it was just good to be out of the car for a bit. We’d spent the majority of the day with the lemurs and while we were ready to be back, it was kind of nice just to sit out in the last few hours of sunlight. The heat from the day had passed, grey clouds were billowing in over the hills to block some of the harsher rays. We played a couple of rounds of rock, paper, scissor, and threw some stones at a puddle while we waited for the car to be fixed.

After about an hour, the sun continued its westward way behind one of the large hills and our driver announced that it was time for us to also head in that direction. We loaded back into the car, fastened our seat belts, and made it about half a kilometer before the wobbling of the front-left tire clued us in that we may have a larger problem.

The driver steered the hobbled vehicle into a long and dusty driveway and turned off the engine. This time for good. If we were getting back to our hotel tonight, it wasn’t going to be this way.

The four of us each pulled out our mobile phones. We looked to our guide and driver; they shook their heads. Both were dead after a full day of usage. Mike and I pulled out ours; both had the unmistakable “Searching…” in the top left corner.

We were in the middle of the Madagascar countryside, hours away from our hotel. We had a broken car, four useless cell phones, and it was getting dark. Quickly.

We assessed the situation. The driver wanted to stay with his car, the guide wanted to get back home. We’d passed a small village about ten minutes ago and none of us were sure how far it was to the next one on our way.

As the last rays of light quickly evaporated from existence, our guide resorted to trying to wave down a vehicle, while Mike and I assessed our personal situation. We had a dwindling supply of ariary, Madagascar’s currency, and only a couple of euros between us. Should we stay with the guide and the car, wait until morning, and hope that he could somehow get it fixed? Or should we go with the guide and try to get back to city tonight?

The decision became more pressing as the guide successfully waved down one of the 15-passenger vans that doubled as buses between the city and its outlying villages. This taxi was heading back to the village we’d passed only a couple of minutes before and had room for three people. The guide told us to wait here and he’d come back for us. We told him we were coming with him and loaded onto the bus.

As the vehicle that had clearly been operating since the early 1960s barreled down the road, the guide explained to us what we could expect:

“You will be the only tourists here, it will be very apparent that you are tourists,” he began, “Keep your head down, hide all your valuables, and do not get far from me.”

We arrived into the village. I tucked my passport in my front shirt pocket, separated my money into different areas of my body and slung my camera around my neck, but below my shirt. Our first bit of good fortune quickly appeared: right next to our bus was another bus getting ready to leave for the city. There were already 15 passengers on board, but for a little extra, the driver allowed the three of us to get on. As the driver was pulling away, we were flagged down by four people; passengers 19, 20, 21 and 22 hopped on board the 15-seat bus bound for Antananarivo.

The driver continued through the night, slowing as we passed over twenty-foot gaps in the pavement and speeding up as we went around large trucks. As we popped over one hill, before coasting down the next, an unmistakable array of blue, red, and white lights greeted us. A police checkpoint. In the middle of the country, away from any city.

I pulled my passport from my pocket, waiting for the officer to board the van and demand to see the documentation of the two people who looked very different from the rest. Our guide leaned over to us:

“Do not tell them you’re tourists. Tell them we’re friends. Tell them you came from America to visit us, your friends.”

We nodded in silent agreement.

The officer took his flashlight off his belt, briefly illuminating the scene around us. Five or six stood around the bus, each with very large and very automatic rifles. The officer with the flashlight shone it on the driver, who smiled and gave him a few Malgasy pleasantries. He moved slowly towards the back of the bus, shining the light on each passenger who gave the officer a brief smile and then continued to look forward. He arrived at me. I met his gaze. He paused for a second and moved onto the person sitting behind me. He tapped the top of the van with the butt of his flashlight. The driver started the vehicle and we began anew for the city.

We arrived back to the bus stop. Like a clown car, we all began to file out of the vehicle, one after another. The driver asked Mike and I to stay put, offering to give us a ride to our hotel for a small fee. Several others stayed on the bus, as well; opting to sleep there rather than face the potential danger of the night.

We made it back to our hotel, a couple ariary and a couple of euro less, but with everything else we’d brought. Our cell phones picked up the wifi signal of the hotel and buzzed to life with new messages and new alerts. Dinner had been covered and left on the lobby’s table. As we sat down at the table, white steam escaped from the lid as we uncovered the meal that had been prepared for us hours earlier.

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Antananarivo, Madagascar

After jumping from hotel to hotel for almost four weeks, it was good to be in Madagascar. We were staying in the same place, sleeping in the same bed for four nights. Iran was far from what we expected, Madagascar should be more on point. We could relax and be a bit more comfortable from the get go.

Madagascar was one of those places that we’d always wanted to visit and we thought this trip would be a good time to do it. It also seemed like a place where we could prepare very little and just hire a guide when we get there. After meticulously planning 35 days for six continents and 12 countries in nine different languages, we were just plain tired of it. We did a little research on where to stay, found an excellent recommendation, and decided to ask the hotel owner when we arrived.

We knew we wanted to see lemurs on this trip, but the rest of Madagascar was a bit of a mystery to us. We arrived at the airport after midnight, transferred to the hotel, and quickly settled into bed; we told the hotel owner we would talk about planning over breakfast the next day.

Securing a driver was not difficult, our hotel had a list of them who were ready to take us anywhere we wanted to go. Since we had plenty of time here, we decided on an easy first day: let’s just see what Antananarivo has to offer.

Madagascar seemed very similar to Kathmandu: cars setting their own pattern and streets full of low rise buildings with vendors lining every inch. The main difference was the traffic; everyone seemed to stop in the middle of the road for something different. The only hope was that the car was small enough to go around, which with large 15-passenger vans masquerading as buses as the main transportation of the people, didn’t happen often.

We quickly saw one of the causes of the frequent stops: police checking almost every car on almost every corner. We eventually made it to the front of the traffic queue and was greeted by a young officer who was clearly asking the driver for his papers. He took a look back at the two (obviously tourists) guys in the back of the car and said something in Malgasy to our driver.

“Passports, he needs your passports.”

Mike normally carries his passport around; I normally do not.1 Today we both didn’t have them.

The driver waves us all out of the car and into a small building on the side of the road; his supervisor is waiting at a small desk inside a cramped room.

“English?” he asks, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes” I reply.

“No passports?”

“No passports.”

“20 euro.”

I pull out my wallet and hand him 20 euro.

“Each”

We didn’t have two 20-euro notes, so we had to settle on giving him a 50-euro note. It was fairly apparent he wasn’t about to give us change.

We leave the small room, get back into the car and head back to the hotel to get our passports. At several points, the driver asked us to get out of the car and walk on ahead as to avoid further police checkpoints.

We spent the rest of the day touring post-colonization Antananarivo, seeing palaces and other sites special to the Malgasy. With passports securely in a pocket.

The only other time I’ve experienced something like this is in rural Mexico, but the moral of the story is to be ready for it. Our fatal flaw here was getting a bit too comfortable, a bit too relaxed with things, and we paid for it. From all assurances from our driver, if we’d had our documents on us, everything would have been fine.

I can’t tell you to always have your passport on you because honestly, I probably won’t. But if you have a secure way of storing it on your body (a money belt or something similar that goes under your clothes), it may be a good idea to do it. But the most important thing is to be aware of your surroundings and just get a good idea of where you are. In some instances, it may not matter, but in others it could be the difference between having and not having a 50-euro note.

  1. You’re told to always carry your passport with you, but it makes me a bit nervous to do so. If I get robbed, I can always get more money and cancel my credit cards. The same is not true for a passport. I usually carry around a paper copy, but I always carry around a digital copy on my phone

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Layovers

Every time I’ve traveled internationally, I’ve had to deal with layovers. Obviously, I’m usually not too keen on them. They take time away from my eventual destination or at the very least, they interrupt any chance at sleep I might have.

This trip is a bit different; layovers have become part of the point. As I mentioned before, the type of tickets we booked allow for any six destinations and up to 24 hours for any layover. We took advantage of this in Seoul and Kathmandu, and we just got finished with a short one in Paris.1

The very nature of this trip is geared towards short times in many places, but the layovers in Seoul, Kathmandu, and Paris are on an entirely different level. The gut reaction is to move as fast as you can, to see as much as you can, and sleep when on the flights. But after my experience, I don’t think that’s quite the way to do it.

One of the things I struggle with is resisting the commoditization of travel or the want to go to places just to say you’ve been there. With my goal to visit and see as much as I can, it’s tough to fight the urge of checking off a place on my list after only seeing what I can in a day. I feel like I’ve “been” to Kathmandu, Seoul, and Paris, but what does that really mean? Is my goal just to go to these places or is my goal to get a good sense of what these cities have to offer?

The fact that I run into this during my normal traveling, means I need to be especially weary of it on a trip like this. After three weeks on the road– hopping from hotel to hotel and flight to flight– it can get easy to go through the motions. I’ve had to set specific rules for myself not to do that.

The main thing I’ve been doing is resting when I’ve been tired or haven’t felt like doing something. That may seem a bit counter intuitive; it means I see even less of a city than I normally would. But, it also means that I’m enjoying what I do see and mentally telling myself that I’ll need to come back to a place in order to see everything.

It’s important to know yourself as a traveler and know your limitations. As I mentioned before, Mike is someone with limitless energy when he’s in a new city. That is assuredly not me. The easy answer would be for me to suck it up and get out there, but it’s not the right answer for me. That’s one of things that we really want to emphasize with this trip and our writing on this site: don’t follow the crowd, blaze your own travel path. Do it enough and you know what type of traveler you are. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push yourself, but it does mean that you need to stay true to how you like to do things.

Everyone is different. It’s more important for me to do a city semi-well, than look at everything, but see nothing. That doesn’t make my viewpoint on things right for you, it just makes it right for me. Get out there and see what you can, but be mindful of who you are and what interests you while traveling.

  1. But since we’re going back for more time after Madagascar, it doesn’t really count as seeing somewhere different for free

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Tehran, Iran

The past couple of days, I’ve talked about how my expectations were completely changed by visiting Iran. That still meant I needed to be alert of my surroundings and what was going on, but could relax into the culture more than I thought I was going to.

This was all made possible by some of the amazing things I saw in my three days there. Much like Buddhism and Bhutan, Islam is integrated into the very fabric of Iran. But where Buddhism was completely foreign to me, there are many elements of Islam that are similar to the Judeo-Christian culture that I’m used to. While a nation integrated with Christianity would be different in practice, it would be much more similar to how Islam is a fundamental foundation of Iran than Buddhism is with Bhutan.

Our time spent in Tehran broke pretty cleanly into three separate days: we saw many of the museums and history on the first day, we had a chance to travel outside of Tehran on the second, and the final day was spent with some of the more cultural aspects of the country.

We spent the majority of the first day looking at the history of the area and pre-revolution aspects of the country. We visited the archeological museum, saw the crown jewels of Iran’s previous monarchs, and viewed some of the glassware and ceramics the country had created throughout its history. All of this was inherently interesting to the history major in me, but perhaps what was most interesting was how little of this had to do with the current regime. After the revolution of 1979, Iran moved from a monarchy to an Islamic theocracy. The assumption of many westerners is that the current rulers have an iron clad hold on society and culture. While there are many clear efforts to erasing some of the more political aspects of the previous forms of government, it’s not been at the expense of the history.

The second day happened to be a Monday, when most of the museums were closed. I’d mentioned to the guide that I really enjoyed skiing back in the U.S., so he suggested we get out of the city, see some of the country, and head out to one of the 19 ski resorts in the nation. With only three days in Iran, we weren’t going to get to see Shiraz or Persepolis, so it was good to see something other than the constant sprawl of Tehran. This particular mountain was amazing. I’m used to skiing in the eastern United States, this one was reminiscent of the ones you see elsewhere. No matter how high we went up, the ski area just seemed to expand. While I wasn’t able to get out on the slopes for this trip, going to this ski resort alone makes me want to come back to Iran.

The third and final day we had an opportunity to not only see some of the current aspects of the culture, but got to experience some pre-revolution aspects, as well. We visited the palace complex of the pre-revolution kings earlier in the day and saw the grand bazaar and a mosque later in the day. After the history lessons of the first day (and morning of the third day) and the scenic views of the second day, it was interesting to get a better idea of how the Iranian people lived.

The one thing that subverted my pre-visit expectations the most was our apparent ability to move about freely within the country. While there were certain things we couldn’t take pictures of and certain places we weren’t allowed to visit, those felt more like the exceptions rather than rules. We couldn’t move absolutely freely, but it sure did feel pretty close to it.

Another thing I’d expected, but was happy to find, was that the Iranian people were very kind and decent. While visiting the tallest tower in Iran, we paused to watch the sun set over the western part of the city. While chatting with our guide, a family sitting near us had opened a package of cookies and brought them over to us. While we didn’t speak the same language, we all bonded over the beautiful scenery and the delicious deserts they offered.

In the markets, I felt someone touch my arm from behind. I turned to see a smiling middle-aged man asking where I was from. I told him I was from the United States and his smile widened. He thanked me for taking the time to come to his home country to see the differences between what was reported and how things actually were. He asked me to please come back anytime I could and gave me many well wishes before I left.

It doesn’t surprise me that individuals are this kind; I honestly believe that most people treat guests this way. But what surprised me was how outspoken and outgoing everyone was about it. They seemed genuinely happy that I was there.

Three days was not enough to see everything nor form a complete picture of the entire country1, but as may be expected, the feelings of the people do not necessarily reflect the policies of the government. Military installations with high barbwire fences and signs forbidding photography line the streets of the city. A giant mural depicting an American flag made of bombs and skulls enveloped the side of a building. Pictures of Obama and some of Iran’s most despised enemies filled giant posters. Nothing ever felt menacing and no direct threats were ever explicitly stated, but it was a sobering reminder of where we were.

The third day ended with Mike and I being taken to one of the local billiard halls. In another country, a guide may take you to a bar that locals frequent to give you a sense of culture. With the strict ban on alcohol in Iran, we were taken to play pool. It was one of the places where locals socially gathered on weekends. We were surrounded by some incredible billiards players (including a four-time world champion!) and were kindly, but knowingly given tutorials on how to play. Mike and I joined up on teams and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours laughing and trash-talking with some of the best billiards players in the world.

The day ended with our guide taking us back to our hotel amidst loud booms and fires being set around the city. It wasn’t anything nefarious, rather it was in celebration of the new year. The Iranian calendar is centered around the spring equinox; the Sunday-Tuesday we were in the country were some of the last days of the year. This night in particular was the fire festival, which occurs on the last Tuesday of the year. The festival consists of setting off fireworks and making fires around the city. This is done to let the angels know it’s time to bring the spring.

The new year celebration was a perfect ending to our time in Iran. It encapsulated the fears before entering the country, morphing into the joy of experiencing a culture that was legitimately happy to have us there. Any fear of the unknown was quickly swept away by the joyous demeanor of the people.

There’s a lot of things that are worrisome about Iran that I hope I haven’t glossed over in the past few days. There are still very legitimate problems with the government and the way everything is set up there. There’s a reason why I’ve chosen not to dwell on these problems. Not because I want to diminish the seriousness of the issues in play, but because I never heard the side of the story I experienced while in the country. While acknowledging the very deeply ingrained problems of the society, I want to shine a light on the goods things that are also happening there. Those are things that we never hear about.

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  1. I haven’t gotten into, nor am I remotely qualified to comment on, the treatment of women in Iran. But, it was apparent that Mike and I being men made things significantly easier

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Iran: Use the Spoon

Maps are an interesting concept. Their use and value are undeniable; when you’re in one place and trying to get to another, unless you’ve been that way before, a map is a necessity. But once you get where you’re going, a map is fairly useless. Sure, you can pinpoint yourself as being in this exact spot, but honestly, what does that get you?

Our culture pays a lot of attention to maps, mainly as a demarcation between areas. We’re conditioned to think of things as different because they’re on separate areas of a map, but drop someone in an unknown place, they’re more likely to look for similarities than differences.

After my expectations of Iran were shattered, I needed to reset how I was going to act in this place. Everything I’d expected, everything I’d been told, was different from the reality I was experiencing. I was used to looking at a map and being told that this area was bad and this area was good. But from where I was standing it looked a lot like what I was used to. Despite what my senses were telling me about the people I was meeting, I still needed to be aware of where I was. While the culture was different than expected, there was no evidence that the rules and laws I’d been taught were equally false. I needed to learn how to accept this culture, but at the same time, be aware of my surroundings.

The first decision I made, was to act as natural with the people as I could, but be weary of the details I was giving out. This meant I would interact with whomever and not be afraid to tell them I was American (if they asked), but not talk about the politics of Iran and not turn on any of my electronic devices. Instinctively, I knew that the feelings of the Iranian people were not synonymous with those of their government, but actual confirmation was a major turning point in how I expected my time in Iran to play out. As the euphoria from the previous day wore off, I needed to keep in mind that I was still in a country where I had to assume that my every move was being monitored. It didn’t mean that I had to suppress all elements of my personality, but it did mean that I needed to make sure to be careful of what I said or did.

Most importantly though, I could relax. Where I thought I would have to be on constant guard for everything I was doing, I could instead feel my way through this culture. That doesn’t mean I’m not alert, but it does mean that I can let it go a bit in my interactions, that I don’t have to adhere to the predetermined opinions I have; I’m free to go with whatever the Iranian culture dictates.

During dinner on the first night, I enjoyed kebabs and rice at a local restaurant. As I’d been taught to do in restaurants, I placed my napkin in my lap, used my knife to cut the meat, and my fork to relay the rice and chicken to my mouth.

Spoons are a weird thing. To me, their use is limited to soups and other liquids that don’t belong in a cup. Even ice cream is solid enough to use a fork to eat. That probably comes from our general cultural feeling that while spoons are useful, forks should be you go-to utensil while eating. About halfway through dinner, our Iranian guide told me that Iranians use the spoon to cut through the tender meat and to shovel it and the rice. As odd as it was, just using the spoon felt right and it was much easier to eat the food with it. Cutting through years of cultural reinforcement to use the knife and fork to eat, I let go of all I knew and was convinced: use the spoon.

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Iran: All Different, All Relative

It’s difficult to place Iran into context within the rest of our trip. Tourists visit Australia, Nepal, and even Bhutan, but the idea of going to Iran was completely different. We needed to reconcile not only our families’ and friends’ expectations for this swing of our trip, but also our expectations for it. When we have a leader that explicitly labels a place as evil, how do I even begin a conversation about going to that place? How do I reassure people that it’s OK to visit there? How do I reassure myself?

We scheduled a visit to Iran on this trip not only because it was a place we wanted to see, but also because it made logistical sense. Since the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country, the process of getting a visa and booking a flight made more sense in the context of a larger trip, than one specifically for it. And to be perfectly honest, going to a place not that many people had experienced was particularly appealing to me. We have experiences for ourselves, but we also have experiences so that we can share them with others. The thought of being able to tell people– first hand– about life in Iran held some kind of sway over me.

Expectations are a funny thing. They exist, but only temporarily. And they’re neverendingly in flux. They’re constantly molded by new information, by changes in what we want, or by actually experiencing the thing we expect. Sometimes we place a false kind of hope into these expectations–think of the way that you rehearse talking to that girl you like and how you expect her to respond. And sometimes we expect the worst, so that when it happens our expectations are either met or exceeded.

The first thing we did when we entered Iran was wait; wait in a long line for customs. Several people stood in front of us with passports of different colors, but there were only two who held passports with that unmistakable dark navy color. One by one, people filtered through this bottleneck and one by one they all made it through. Until Mike made it to the front.

Things were immediately different as soon as Mike handed the customs agent that dark-blue passport. A different tone, a different timber took the air. I stood– next in line– watching the whole thing unfold. Everything was a bit more formal, a bit more deliberate. After about five minutes, the agent took Mike off to the side and asked if I could come up to the booth. Similarly, I handed him my documentation and similarly, he pulled me off to the side to join Mike in some kind of customs purgatory.

Different agents looked at our passports and each handed them to someone who was clearly more senior. Eventually the chain ended and we were asked to step into a small white room in the back of the area. In it, stood an older-model Windows computer attached to scanners that were clearly meant for fingerprints. An agent asked Mike to come forward. In a blend of English and Farsi, he was fingerprinted and his documents were checked, not only against every database the computer could throw against it, but also for every stamp in his passport.1

As the agent asked me to come forward, it was clear that based on the information he’d gotten on Mike, his tone had changed; it was a bit different, a bit lighter. He quickly ran through all the information he could find on me, but as he handed my passport back there was a kind of a knowing smile. A nod to the fact that he wasn’t sure why we would want to put ourselves through this, but everything had checked out, and he was fine with whatever it was we were doing.

We sat in a central waiting area as officials looked through the information that agent had gleaned. After several more minutes, the agent who was clearly in charge waived us over. With a big smile on his face, he gave back our passports and held out his hand:

welcome to Iran.

We filed out of customs, rode the escalator down to the main terminal and approached the exit. Waiting with a “Jordan Wadlington, Michael Turner”2 sign, a young, Iranian man, with rimless glasses and hair down to his shoulders waived us over

welcome to Iran.

What followed over the course of the next three days was stunning. Our expectations were completely shattered. We didn’t expect to be treated poorly, but we didn’t expect to be treated as we did: as old friends visiting after a long period away. The people we met, the people we saw, all greeted us with a mix of humility and wonderment; a general air of acceptance and awe. Who were these Americans that took the time to see how we lived?

I have so much to say about Iran, so many examples of kindness and goodwill that I could write another thousand words over it. But instead of doing it now, I’m going to support what I’ve said here with examples in the coming days. Any fear, any worry, I had coming into this trip evaporated when I actually met the people. I just hope that I make that clear over the next few days.

In 1954, Issa and Abdullah, two Iranian brothers, set forth on motorcycles from Tehran to see the world. After seven years of crossing the burning deserts of Africa, the dense forests of the Amazon, the harsh climate of the Antarctic, and the vast expanses of Asia the two brothers returned home to Iran. They’d seen everything, met with everyone, and came to a satisfying conclusion: “All different, all relative”.

  1. We were told going into this that we wouldn’t be allowed into Iran if we had an Israeli stamp in our passports. This was no joke. The first thing every agent did was skim through the stamps in our passports.
  2. Again, the misspelling of my name is culturally agnostic

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