Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Where Have I Been in 2016?

[[This entry is part 1 of a 2-part post on what has been happening in the last seven months of my life. This entry is on the first six months and it covers a lot of ground quickly.]]

I am writing this entry from my desk at work. I didn’t have an expectation of where I might end up, but somehow a desk job with time to write life-updates surprises me. Then again, this is about the most un-desk job work I’ve had that still involves sitting stationary. Also, I’m in Laos.

The path to here started seven months ago when Brie and I headed out on a trip. It was fairly open ended and prompted by several different factors. After Thanksgiving at home with the family and saying so long to all of my DC area friends, I got on a plane to Hawaii. A week on, we headed to Australia.

The next three months were spent heading around the continent. There was no way that I was going to see things in the level of depth that I did during my full year there. But there was still a lot of ground that I hadn’t covered in that year and I wanted to remedy that fact. We spent the first two weeks on a road trip from Cairns to the greater Sydney area with Brie’s parents, visiting extended, long-lost family that they’d only recently found out they had. We spent Christmas in warm weather, eating a picnic lunch with 20-some-odd family members on a farm a couple hours west of Sydney. Boxing day was spent with a completely different group of a few dozen relatives at a house in the woods. We were introduced to four generations of people who all welcomed us in with open arms and beer and wine. And pavlova. Delicious pavlova.

We spent the days around New Year’s camping on a deck above Kiama Bay, staying with Mike, a friend of Brie’s dad (Dan). Mike, a surf photographer, and Dan, a former professional surfer took me out for my first lesson and I managed to catch a few waves. Brie and I explored Sydney (with an old friend, Cat) and Canberra before spending a week with Ally and her family in Melbourne. We met up with old friends there and I was able to show her around the city that will, one day, be my home. In South Australia we spent a week with my second parents and friends Steve and Cathy. I learned how to slalom waterski, and Brie learned how to kneeboard up at the river house.

From there it was on new ground for me: Western Australia. We spent a collective couple weeks in Perth with Tash and Matt, relaxing, getting a feel for life in the Perth ‘burbs, and drinking good wine. We did an absolutely absurd amount of driving, pushing straight up to Broome and Kununurra. We drove through a cyclone, past the majority of the Top End that was closed for the wet season, and on to Darwin. We sorted out and relaxed with Collette and Phil, explored Litchfield from their lake house, and hiked through lightning storms in Kakadu. We drove on to Alice Springs to pick up another traveler to explore the Red Center (Uluru, Kata Tjuta, King’s Canyon, and Coober Pedy). We played the world’s longest golf course on the Nullarbor Plane and explored wind farms and beach towns on the southwest coast. Brie and I headed up to feed dolphins and do boat tours at Monkey Mia and snorkel with marine life on the Ningaloo Reef. We chartered a flight to the Abrolhos, a coral island chain that is some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. We even frolicked with a sea lion!

Our next three months were spent touring around southeast Asia. We spent a week exploring Singapore and some of the surreal sights there before heading up to Malaysia. We met up with an old high school friend Tracy in Kuala Lumpur, we ate peanut satay fondue and toured around an ancient city in Malaca, and we learned about spices in Penang. Though Phuket in Thailand was a total bust, Koh Samui was a great chance to meet up with my cousins Cass and Selena and catch a muay thai fight. Bangkok was an over the top experience where we experienced Songkran (Thai New Year) on Khosan Road in one of the world’s largest water fights. We ate food in a mall themed like an airplane terminal and we learned that Google Maps’ public transit feature is utterly worthless in some countries. Visits to the ruined former Thai Kingdom capitols in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai were beautiful and meditative experiences even though they were unrelentingly hot and we overexerted ourselves. We spent a week in Chiang Mai taking cooking classes, touring markets, and going to a really fun jazz club (which I had not expected to find there). We celebrated Brie’s birthday with a two-day trek through rice paddies, over forested mountains, and into a minority village in the most northern parts of Thailand.

Crossing the border into Laos, the change in greenery and development was instantly visible. The infrastructure of good roads and reliable buses just didn’t exist, but that also meant that the landscape was not nearly as adulterated. We visited Mueng Sing – a town so off the beaten track that we were the fifth and sixth visitors in the past several months – for the morning market and a bike ride around the villages. And in Luang Namtha we found a place that we decided to park it for a week despite not having intended to stop in the first place. I did a two-day trek that was the most physically grueling experience I have ever undertaken with people we met over breakfast. And then we spent a few days relaxing and recovering in the perfectly laid-back town. We visited a waterfall, the night market, some great museums, and a hospital in Luang Prabang, where I spent a week on bedrest to get over a fever and sickness. We arrived in Vang Vieng just in time for the rocket festival, where 10-meter long bamboo rockets were shot into the sky to bring the rains of the wet season. Vang Vieng was an odd juxtaposition of a drunken and drugged out frat party placed squarely in the center of pristine area with a river and countless mountain caves. Vientiane was Brie’s chance to visit the hospital and get a week of bedrest from whatever had struck me previously, and for us to spend multiple nights wandering around a night market in search of terribly translated shirts. We found gifts and surprisingly nice clothes instead, which was somewhat of a win.

Our plans took us to Phong Nha, Vietnam next for me to follow up on an open-ended job offer I’d received on my previous trip. This was an area that had captured my heart four years prior when I had been on the very leading edge of what I felt was to become a major tourist destination in the country. From the internet listings, it looked like that wave had never shown up. But as soon as we got there in person it was clear that the wave had hit hard, as half the village was now hotels-to-be and other construction. The nature and the surrounding area still captured my heart, but the job offer had long since lapsed. I hit the pavement hard for two days, shook many trees, and in the end wound up with a handful of job offers. I made friendly local acquaintances and we were invited to join for a family dinner. The choice was hard, but in the end I opted to head back to a job offer in Laos. I surprised Brie for our six month travelversary with an off-menu request at Easy Tiger hostel, whose chef welcomed the challenge to make Brie’s favorite dish: carne asada fries. We spent our last days motorbiking around, seeing as much of the area as we could on the cheap and marveling at the increase in tourism. A parking lot which had contained two minibuses on my previous visit now held forty full size tour buses.

We discussed our future plans at length and came to the realization that our desired plans and our budgets were leading us in different directions for the immediate future. Opting for a final week together, we headed up to Hong Kong. The week was a great one, despite all of the stresses of parting ways and every second thing we tried to see falling through. We spent an entire day learning about the nautical history of China and Hong Kong next to the world’s largest anchor. We met up with my friend Xin and his wife Lila several times as they explained local culture and treated us to delicious local foods. We took the world’s largest sequence of outdoor escalators and travelators (about 20 minutes end to end) and visited the world’s highest bar. For a week we walked endlessly around a city that managed to cram seven million people into a tiny area and still be more orderly, more logical, and so much quieter than American cities a fraction of the size. It was a surprisingly great city, and a very nice note on which to end six months of travel together as we headed on to our respective new adventures.

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This entry was posted on July 17, 2016 by in Australia, Laos, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam.

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