Installment: Coming Home? by Elliott Hester
on photos for more images from trip
I'm worn out. But blissfully so.
Having just completed a one-year, around-the-world adventure through
more than 50 destinations in 22 countries on 6 continents, I can
say, with some degree of authority, that the world is still a beautiful
place. It has warts, to be sure. There are dangers, both real and
imagined. But because of the people I met along the way, and the
kindness they bestowed upon me, this once-in-a-lifetime travel experience
has cemented my faith in humanity. It also changed me in ways I
had not imagined.
First, I realize how fortunate I am to have been born in a country
where prosperity is a relatively attainable pursuit. In Argentina,
where my journey began in October, 2002, the country's catastrophic
financial collapse makes the U.S. economic predicament seem trivial
walking along Florida Street, a popular pedestrian mall in Buenos
Aires, I saw hundreds of people lined up in front of Banca Nazionale.
They were there to trade weakened pesos for dollars. Farther up
the street at an ice cream shop, nearly 1,000 job applicants stood
in a massive queue, hoping to fill one of two available positions.
And yet the tango halls teemed with revelers. As did the soccer
stadiums. Restaurants served heaping plates of asado (barbecue)
to financially-strapped patrons who danced to Argentine folk songs
until the wee hours of the morning.
In Papeete, Tahiti, where a box of Fruit Loops goes for $6.63 at
the local grocery, I learned to appreciate the value of a dollar.
(A one-hour connection at an Internet café cost nearly $10.00,
as did a late-night, four-minute cab ride.) Fiscal absurdities aside,
I got the chance to sail on the Aranui, a cargo ship that operates
from Tahiti to the beautifully isolated Marquesas Islands.
Ua Pao, Tahuata, Fatu Hiva, Hiva Oa. While passengers took shore
excursions to one mist-shrouded island after another, the crew unloaded
precious cargo: food, building materials, heavy equipment, beer.
The ship is a blessing for islanders who, for the most part, are
cut off from the rest of the world.
13 days of frenetic island hopping soon got the best of me. With
a few days remaining on the Aranui's itinerary, I jumped ship at
Nuka Hiva. A similar desertion took place here in 1842, when Herman
Melville abandoned the whaler Acushnet. For a month he lived among
cannibals that once inhabited the island. Based on the experience,
which landed him in a Papeete prison, he wrote Typee: A Peep at
Polynesian Life. It was the first of five successful novels that
preceded his literary masterpiece, Moby Dick.
In contrast to Melville's thrilling island adventure, I stayed a
few days and went goat hunting with a friendly local.
From Nuka Hiva, I flew to Papeete and onward to Sydney, Australia.
Days later, a Greyhound bus dropped me off in Coober Pedy, a dusty
opal mining town in the middle of a flat red nowhere. Here in the
heart of the outback, the intense sun can push temperatures past
the 120-degree mark. Consequently, half the 3,000 residents live
in elaborate underground "dugouts" equipped with all the
comforts of home – except air-conditioning. Dugouts maintain
an average temperature of about 68 degrees.
I slept underground at Radeka's, a dugout youth hostel. The owners,
Yveline Page and her boyfriend Tony Karetsian, are two of the friendliest
proprietors on earth. In addition to taking me on an afternoon mining
expedition at their private opal claim, I was invited to barbeques
where Tony prepared great-tasting sausages. Although I ate two or
three helpings, they refused to charge me for what I consumed.
north, I soon found myself in Brunei, home to His Majesty The Sultan.
During this year of living aimlessly, my one big splurge was a three-night
stay at the five-star Empire Hotel & Country Club near the capital
of Bandar Seri Begawan. Hours after checking into my opulent suite,
His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa, the Prime Minister
of Bahrain, arrived with an entourage. They occupied 40 rooms, including
the palatial Emperor's Suite, which, at $13,000 per night, cost
a tad more than mine.
After Brunei, the days and destinations began to fly by. I ate scrumptious
$3 Thai meals, prepared by vendors on the streets of Bangkok. I
marveled at the cleanliness and efficiency of Singapore's state-of-the-art
subway system. I watched with utter fascination as the Balinese
sun dipped, like a ball of melting butter, into the Indian Ocean.
I stood transfixed in front of India's Taj Mahal, unable to fathom
how a structure of such delicate magnitude could have taken shape
from human hands.
Made of white translucent marble and imbedded with thousands of
tiny flower petal-shaped gems, the Taj was inspired by a broken
heart. After his wife died during childbirth, the Mughal emperor
Shah Jahan ordered the construction of this palace-like mausoleum
which was completed in 1653.
A hired car had taken me to Agra from Delhi, primarily to see the
Taj. But on the return trip, I was hit with a case of "Delhi
Belly." At about the same time, I became somewhat disenchanted
with the notion of traveling alone. Lord knows that the best time
to be by one's self is while suffering from cataclysmic diarrhea.
But when I had partially recovered and prepared to take a 35-hour
train ride to Mysore, India, "aloneness," which I had
hoped this trip would offer plenty of, seemed like the world's most
many times had I dined alone in one fantastic restaurant or another?
How many spectacular sunsets had I been privy to? How often had
I walked, unaccompanied, through ancient churches, mosques, and
Just when I started feeling sorry for myself, I got in touch with
Raian Irani, a stranger from Mysore who was kind enough to accept
my phone call. His name had been mentioned in an email from Ram
Prabhu, a stranger from Cleveland who was kind enough to provide
the contact. (Weeks earlier, Ram read about my trip in this newspaper
column.) "Make sure you visit Mysore," he said in a brief
message. "Most tourists never see the south of India, Raian
is a good man to know there."
I arrived in Mysore in May, at the height of the SARS epidemic.
Despite the fact that I had worrisome symptoms (fever, dizziness,
headache, sore muscles), Raian, a prominent local businessman, insisted
that I stay at his home. I accepted the invitation, believing that
Delhi Belly was the cause of my illness. But as servants carried
my bags into the house, I wondered if SARS had taken root. After
all, I departed Singapore a few weeks earlier, just as the first
cases were being diagnosed there.
two bed-ridden days in a guest room, I feared the worst. Raian drove
me to a medical clinic. In front of the crumbling building and along
the dusty street, cows meandered freely. They seemed as much a part
of the traffic flow as the motor bikes, cars, rickshaws, bicycles,
push carts, trucks and busses. I remember stepping from the car
and staggering past an ox-driven wagon. The massive bovine creature,
and its creaking load, could have rolled straight out of the 17th
I followed Raian up the stairs and into a room where a doctor appeared.
Raian greeted him like an old friend. "Be careful," he
said jokingly, "this guy just arrived from Singapore."
The doctor quickly donned a surgical mask and gloves. He began the
exam, using an antiquated metal tongue depressor that was as heavy
as a paper weight.
A few days and antibiotics later, I recovered from what turned out
to be the flu. Along with Raian, his wife Shahanez and their young
son Jazed, I piled into the car and drove south to Udagamandalam
(better known as Ooty).
Nestled high in the Nilgiri hills, and surrounded by coffee and
tea plantations, Ooty was founded in 1821 by British colonists seeking
respite from the scorching summer heat. It is still home to the
Lawrence School of Lovedale, which, not coincidentally, was in the
midst of its 145th anniversary celebration when we arrived. Raian's
teenage daughter, Vashte, is student here.
the day, we attended theater productions, art exhibits and equestrian
events put on by students. At night we retreated to the Irani's
second home, just downhill from the school. We gathered around the
blazing fireplace, immersed in tea and conversation: Raian, Shahanez,
Jazed, Vashte and me – a continental drifter who no longer
felt like one.
From Ooty, I drove to Bangalore and caught a series of flights that
ultimately delivered me to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Farther north,
the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela rank among the world's most underrated
during the 12th or 13th century in this remote mountain town, craftsmen
carved 11 churches out of volcanic rock. Like pieces of cake cut
from the center, square trenches were dug out of the nearby hillsides.
From the resulting blocks of rock they fashioned steps, windows,
doors, façades. Finally, the interior rock was scooped out,
leaving vestigial columns for support.
But poverty weighed heavy on my heart. Not far away, in the Ethiopian
town of Bahar Dar, I walked down a dirt road and was besieged by
dozens of homeless children. (I later learned that this town, and
hundreds like it, is rife with kids who've lost parents to war,
famine, and more often than not, AIDS.)
Barefoot, ragged, their faces caked with dust, two of the more persistent
boys asked for shoes, not money. It was impossible to deny them
such necessities. I bought them new shoes, socks and shirts. Never
in my life have I been rewarded with such appreciative smiles.
But the next morning as I left my hotel, four of their friends were
waiting. They needed shoes, socks, shirts.
Because I am of African descent, I was often met by stares in Estonia,
Latvia and Lithuania. But the gawking seemed to come out of curiosity
rather than contempt.
In St. Petersburg, Russia, while walking along Nevsky Prospekt,
the city's main thoroughfare, I was approached by locals on at least
a dozen occasions. Russian women, and occasionally men, implored
me to pose with them for photographs. During one encounter, two
women kissed me on each cheek while a third aimed the camera. Then
they switched positions.
hoped to spend about $60 per day during this one-year expedition.
Having calculated my expenditures, however, it appears that I've
spent closer to $75 or $80. Europe killed my budget. A strong Euro,
paired with stints in expensive cities like Rome, Helsinki and Athens,
had me forking up nearly $110 per day. Low-cost destinations like
Indonesia, Ethiopia, and India helped balance the scales. In Delhi,
for example, the air-conditioned Hotel Ajanta was a dream at $14
After a year like this, most travelers would welcome a trip home.
I would too, if I had one. But giving up my Miami Beach apartment
and selling my possessions made this adventure a financially attainable
one. In the process, I've experienced true freedom.
So I'll continue to live my life as a continental drifter. I'm in
Barcelona at the moment, taking Spanish classes, munching on tapas,
and trying to find my way around this lovely Catalonian metropolis.
But Valencia is only a few miles down the coast. Madrid is a shuttle
flight away. And at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula lies
Hmmm Morocco. I wonder what it's like this time of year.
TIPS FOR AROUND-THE-WORLD TRAVELERS
• Purchase airline tickets from a travel
agency specializing in multi-segment trips: These two leading
agencies buy discounted one-way fares from a variety of carriers
and pass on the savings to customers: AirTreks.com, 442 Post St.,
Suite 400, San Francisco 94102; tel. 877-247-8735 or 415-912-5600
Brokers International tel. 800-883-3273 www.airbrokers.com.
• Make sure your flight dates can be
changed without penalty: You never know how long you'll feel
like staying in a particular place.
• Consider a route that provides perpetual
summer: Departing from Miami in October, I flew to South
America, then west to French Polynesia, Australia, Southeast Asia,
Africa and Europe. T-shirt weather stayed with me all the way.
• Choose manageable luggage:
Backpacks are de rigueur among long-term travelers. But my large,
rolling duffle is less awkward and holds as much gear.
• Obtain travel visas prior to departure:
I made the mistake of applying for an Ethiopian visa in Delhi, India.
The bureaucracy had me running in circles.
• Get your finances in world order:
Set up an online banking account; carry an ATM bank card; make sure
your credit cards are backed by world-class banks. (Citibank delivered
a replacement MasterCard to my hotel in Riga, Latvia, within 24
hours of my request.)
• Don't sweat over hotel reservations:
Outside the U.S., most major airports provide a hotel booking desk.
Choose appropriate local lodging from a list of possibilities, pay
in advance, receive a hotel voucher and voilá.
• Try not to micro-manage every aspect
of the trip: Something will inevitably go wrong. Chill. Adapt.
Flexibility makes any trip a more enjoyable one.
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