A Night on The Wall

As the sun began to set on my final evening in Xi’an, China, I remained atop the famous 8.7 mile long city wall to take in the sunset and see how the city’s modern buildings looked in juxtaposition to the ancient city walls. After a two-hour bicycle ride atop the wall, this would be a great way to spend the early part of the evening.

While most well known as the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors or as the final stop on one route of the famed Silk Road, Xi’an’s wall and culture set it apart from other cities I have visited in China. The modern and ancient contrast is visible from every location within the city walls.

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After watching sunset, I headed first to the wall’s South Gate to get a view of the city’s central bell tower. While impressive during the day, its colorful nighttime lights give it a special aura as traffic fills the streets which encircle the tower.

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I continued walking on the wall and encountered one of the most impressive architectural features on the wall outside of its many ramparts: the bell towers. This was the South Exit’s bell tower. Rampart

Another impressive part of the wall is how well it is illuminated for pedestrians and the several straggling bikers as night falls. Beautiful lanterns line the top of the wall for as far as the eye can see.

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With nightfall, I continued down to street level inside of the park’s confines to see how the wall looked from the outside. I was pleasantly surprised to have a striking view of the city, the city’s wall, and the South Gate.

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Xian Skyline

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Even if you go to Xi’an just to see the Terra Cotta Warriors and the famous Muslim Quarter, make sure to spare an evening in your itinerary for the famous city wall.

 

 

 

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2015 Great Wall Marathon in Photos

As my friend and I climbed up the set of stairs leading to the Jinshaling stretch of the Great Wall of China, we encountered some interesting individuals both descending and ascending the steep and ragged stairs.

One would expect large groups of tourists, photographers, or even vendors on a warm (and clear) April afternoon, but these people were unique and special— they were runners.

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As a runner from Hong Kong told me, this was no average run. They were near the finish line for the 2015 Great Wall Marathon. You read that right- the Great Wall Marathon. I didn’t believe it at first, but there were hundreds of people running 26.2 miles on one of the world’s most famous landmarks. At this point we still had not seen the wall ourselves, but once we arrived the immensity of the challenge was soon very apparent.

The Jinshaling section of the wall is the most-photographed section of the Great Wall. As it serpentines the ridges and mountaintops, it creates a breathtaking scene. This scenery coupled with weathered barriers was interesting when juxtaposed against marathoners.

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Once we reached the Wall, we our exciting 4 hour walk alongside marathoners led to new friendships and some unforgettable scenery.

I have never run a marathon, but I can say with a great deal of certainty that it is one of the most challenging and physically demanding athletic pursuits out there even if it is on flat ground or a paved roadway. The Great Wall Marathon was neither on flat ground nor was it on a paved roadway. Runners were met with steep slopes, ragged staircases, and eroding pathways as they carried on towards the finish line.

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As my friend and I struggled down these staircases, we could only imagine the difficulty and cramping runners faced as they reached mile 20 running on this wall. There was a real possibility for serious injury but they all pressed onward towards the finish line.

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In the face of this daunting challenge, many runners were cheerful and could not wait say hello during the marathon. IMG_4414

Runners of all ages with walking sticks stopped to say hello or wave as they continued towards the finish. IMG_4416

Other runners wearing nothing more than a tank top and shorts pressed toward the finish. 

Crossing through the watch posts was another interesting part of navigating the Great Wall and finishing the marathon. There were often bottlenecks inside as groups of runners jockeyed for position to keep up their pace.

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Our fantastic guide, Jack, was all smiles as he explained the Wall’s history and its importance throughout the duration of our tour. Anyone interested in doing a tour of the wall should definitely stop by the Wild Great Wall Adventure Tours website and book with them (http://www.wildgreatwall.com). The experience was world class and Rick and his team did a great job making sure everything was arranged for us weeks in advance.

Once we passed through the first watch tower, a young couple was giggling at the bottom and eventually ended up talking with my friend and I. Since they were staff for the marathon, they joined us for part of the walk to make nice conversation and talk about some of the race’s details. While there were some communication gaps, they helped make the whole tour memorable. It’s another example of meeting interesting people along the way when you travel.

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As the day grew older, we split ways and continued towards the terminus of the tour but encountered even more runners as they braved the Great Wall. About midway through our tour, the Chinese flag provided a great opportunity to see runners hustling down one of the smoother portions of the Jinshaling Wall.

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Several hundred yards later, an ominous watch tower was a preview of some of the difficulties runners would face later on in the course.

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From this point onward, the climb became even more difficult. Steep inclines and declines made some joggers take pause but they kept going against all odds.

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As we continued towards our tour’s terminus, there were beautiful scenes around every corner. Looking back at the wall as the sun began to set, we thought about the runners and finally making it to one of the world’s most famous landmarks.

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The runners and the marathon were an interesting distraction during the day, but the moment for which we had waited all day finally arrived– sunset. Words cannot describe how beautiful this sight was.

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Macau vis-à-vis Manila: Architectural Splendor in Photos

If you paid attention during a high school world history class or during a discussion about empires rising and falling, odds are that you learned a lot about the Iberian Union between the Spanish and the Portuguese. At the same time, you most likely learned about the Spanish Empire and the Portuguese Empire and the vast, wealthy trade empires both nations built. The famous military leaders, the military victories and defeats, and even cultural traces like national languages are known to most, but one of the most interesting aspects of colonial rule I want to investigate is strikingly visible all over Macau and many parts of Manila: architecture.

Walking to Senado Square through the customs building.
Walking to Senado Square through the customs building.

In previous posts (some solely dedicated to architecture, and some not), I have mentioned the interesting nature iconic imagery that accompanies many of these old colonial structures as newer, more modern buildings spring up around them. In Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, high rises and office buildings stand next to crumbling (albeit beautiful) colonial structures, and those structures stand next to other well preserved colonial buildings. The contrast is fascinating and deserves its own post.

The nature of the Iberian Union and the close ties between the Portuguese and Spanish, though Catholicism and colonial architecture are a dominating presence as you walk through historic Macau and Intramuros, the famous walled city within metro Manila. There is one uniting factor between the two cities, even though they are thousands of miles apart: Spanish Baroque style architecture. This influence resonates from the gates of Intramuros to the walls of St. Paul’s.

The main impetus for me traveling to Macau for the first time over a year ago was rather simple. I wanted to play roulette at the famous Grand Lisboa Casino, eat some of the famous Portuguese egg tarts, and see the famous fountain at Senado Square, right in the heart of old Macau. As soon as I arrived, though, I was taken back by the fantastic job that Portuguese authorities (until 1999) and the current Chinese government have done with preserving and protecting the colonial architectural treasures that await in Macau. The fabulous parks and street signs instantly let you know that you are in a special place, unlike any other on Earth.

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Of course Senado Square is the most famous attraction, with its 16th Century tiled walkways and plazas, boasting images of sea creatures and boats within the intricate tile work. I thought the historic nature of the city would be limited to this touristy area, but I was happily mistaken. Almost as soon as one gets off of the bus at one of the casinos, the rich history of Macau becomes visible. The pastel pink governor’s mansion is visible across the lagoon from Macau Tower.

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As my friend and I made our way towards this beautiful building, we walked up more back alleys and found ourselves in a world of a past time. Tiled plazas were abound, as were nice walkways and statues. The dominating factor of it all, though, was the nature of the architecture. There were Catholic Churches everywhere. Nearby buildings borrowed from the Spanish Baroque style of architecture to help create a unique feel and flavor in the world’s most-densely populated city. It is quite a site to see Catholic nuns walking through the streets in China with a backdrop as elegant as the various Catholic Churches in the area. We haven’t even gotten to the most famous part of the Portuguese legacy in Macau: the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

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When one walks through Intramuros, similar sights and sounds follow you in a completely different environment than the one found in Macau. Ravaged by war, the colonial history of the city is still visible, but only in small places like Intramuros.

Once you pass through the gates to the city, a whole new world comes to life. Children bustle on the cobblestone streets and in the back alleys while horse-drawn carriages carry tourists from one place to another in the Spanish-era fortification. Ruins of old shops, homes, and stores have been turned into museums and antique shops while the plazas, fountains, and monuments to previous leaders and religious figures are kept largely in tact. Pastel-colored buildings adorned with Spanish names and large cast-iron gates represent what life was like during another era. I did not find it difficult to imagine myself walking down these streets prior to the Spanish-American War.

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As you realize you are inside of a massive walled city and earthwork fortification, something else becomes very clear: Manila was a very important and strategic location for the Spanish Empire. Overlooking various waterways and the Pacific Ocean, there was a reason why the Spanish, Americans, and Japanese all coveted Manila at different points in history. These kinds of views and outlook points are very similar to those one can observe in Macau, adjacent to the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

View from Fort Santiago
View from Fort Santiago

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The Portuguese built a sizable and imposing fort at the top of the ridge next to St. Paul’s centuries ago and this fort helped stave off a formidable Dutch invasion centuries ago. Much like in Manila, the guns and soldiers are long gone but the fort symbolizes the military importance of a port city to trading giants. In Manila, forts look out over some of the poorer areas of the city, but in Macau there are some spectacular views of the Grand Lisboa Casino.

Cannons overlook the Grand Lisboa Casino in Macau.
Cannons overlook the Grand Lisboa Casino in Macau.

These architectural styles are fantastic, but the true beauty in Manila and Macanese architecture rest in the Catholic Churches and other places of worship that dot the respective cities. In Macau, there are various churches and cathedrals, which, with their bright exteriors and somewhat plain interiors, show off the importance of Catholicism while being somewhat modes in their construction. At the same time, the Baroque style dominates their exteriors with concrete sculptures, high rooflines, and ornate woodwork. The true beauty in Macau rests with the world famous St. Paul’s ruins. A truly baroque building, the stonework and remaining elements of this church make one wonder, in awe, bout how it would have looked in its prime before it was destroyed by a fire.

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Manila’s lavishly painted San Agustin Church, along with the Manila Cathedral provide a similar feel for the Catholic influence over the largest city in the Philippines. Dominating stone facades and interiors show the Spanish Baroque-influenced architectural similarities, as well.

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Had it not been for World War II’s destruction of much of Manila, I often wonder what the rest of the city would look like, and whether or not many of its historic and colonial structures would have been preserved. While the most famous elements of Macau’s colonial architecture rests on the northern island, a trip to the southern island and its town, called Taipa, reveals even more interesting colonial architecture. Entire streets of colonial homes and businesses give this part of Macau a very unique feel, even though it is very close to the center of the casino industry. The coolest part about going to Taipa at this time of year was seeing the Lusophone Festival in full swing and sampling some Portuguese and Macanese delights as I walked through the streets of the historic port city.

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When traveling, especially in Asia, where colonial outposts, forts, and other remnants of empire exist, it is important to take some time out of your travel to take in the architecture and try to understand the influences and underlying causes to these buildings and why they are there in the first place. I was surprised by how similar Macau and Manila were, architecturally speaking. I will be visiting a former Dutch garrison in Taiwan in a few weeks and look forward to seeing my first piece of the former Dutch East India Company.

In the coming days, I will post another article documenting some of the architecture I witnessed in Malaysia, specifically Kuala Lumpur, and how seeing that British architecture inspired me to embark on my most daring and exotic trip yet: Burma.

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All Photos are Copyright Erik Jacobs, Erik Abroad (c) 2013 – Present

Read Your Passport Like a Novel

I don’t know what the most exciting part of traveling is for you, but one of the moments I anticipate the most when I travel is getting a new passport stamp, whether it be on entry or exit into a new country or my current country of residence. While our encounters with customs officers may not always be brief or enjoyable, there is (usually) one payoff at the end of the questioning period: the coveted passport stamp. From entry to re-entry permits, student and work visas, temporary visa-free stamps, and other visa-on-arrival programs, our passports tell stories not only about ourselves, but about the travels and journeys on which we embark when we have the time and money. I recently filled up an entire page of my passport with visa stamps from Korea, Japan, and Singapore, and I realized my passport would have some fascinating stories to tell if it could speak. Here are some of those stories, from the first visa page.

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As I open the first page of my American passport, with its chipped cover and its unraveling sides, I begin the journey down the trail of my life for the last three and a half years. The first pages boasts a full-page Japanese student visa complete with my Afro, which was my signature style for several years during the early 2000s up until about 2012. “How did I look so young,” I always ask myself, but the second page is where things get even more interesting. Even better yet, I still don’t know how I made it in Japan when the only Japanese I knew was self-taught on the grueling plane flight from New York to Tokyo. 

There is a landing permission sticker granted by the Japanese government under its old immigration system, which basically signifies that I have permission to remain in Japan for fifteen months (in 2011-2012), but not express written permission to leave without paying for another sticker to be put on that page. Underneath that lies the proof that I went to speak to immigration officers at city hall in Tokyo’s Meguro-ku (目黒区) neighborhood to register as a foreign resident. It’s amazing how my long journey back to Japan can conjure up so many memories when just looking at a page inside of a flimsy book. Even more telling, though, is the other stamp I have on that page: a departure stamp from Narita International Airport, dated March 15th, 2011. One of the defining moments of my life up to this point is definitely the Great Tohoku Earthquake, during which I lived in Tokyo. Seeing that stamp triggers flashbacks to my frantic rush to the airport while trains were still not running on schedule. I will write about that experience in another day. This page appears to be a window into my soul for Asian travels, but it gets even better upon further examination.

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My friend Andrew and I were able to snag the elusive Canadian entrance stamp during a road trip through Montreal and Quebec City en route to Fundy National Park back in 2013! After going through a barrage of questions about drugs and alcohol, we had a short talk with customs officials and they agreed to I’ve us the entrance stamp at a small border crossing between Vermont and Quebec. The unique thing about this stamp is how the French is on the top of the stamp with English on the bottom half of the stamp. It was a sign of things to come for what we would encounter during our road trip through French Canada.

Turning to the next page, I see a myriad of stamps and staple holes, but my most prized staples come from the two Special Administrative Regions in China, Hong Kong and Macau. Last year, the authorities stopped stamping passports in these two cities, and I would be lying right now if I was happy that my passport has flimsy pieces of paper stapled to it instead of having actual stamps. Still, they make for an interesting story. I remember speaking with the authorities and asking for a stamp but they regretfully informed me that they were no longer issuing stamps. This encounter was certainly the low point of a remarkable first trip to Hong Kong and Macau. I have been back three times since and each city always gives the same piece of paper, affixed to the passport. Nothing beats a stamp, but I will settle for the stapled visas. 

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The next page of my passport conjures up memories of my marathon trip through Southeast Asia this year, with stamps from Singapore and Thailand playing predominate roles. The extravagance of the airport in Singapre coupled with the magnificent view from atop the Marina Bay Sands pool deck coupled with the tough immigration in Bangkok re-enter my mind as I look at this page.

Further down on this page, there exists a phantom stamp of sorts, an Ameriacn re-entry stamp without an exit or entry stamp in its vicinity. I went to Israel in 2011 and this stamp actually became an issue at the border crossing station in Jolan Bator, Malaysia. I was grilled by immigration about this stamp but actually ended up having no problems at the end of the day. Why is there no stamp to match up with this American one? It’s simple: Israel. At Ben Gurion Airport, I handed over my passport to the official and asked for the stamp to be put in my passport, but the official refused, and perhaps it was for the better: I may not have been able to enter Malaysia that night had there been more issues. i clung to my passport all night on the overnight train from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

 

The next page in my passport is filled with even more interesting stories, ranging from a one day junket by ferry from Singapore to Indonesia and the subsequent exit and re-entry Singaporean stamps. 

Perhaps the most exciting and elusive stamp for Americans is the special stamp I have from China, documenting that I am allowed to stay in China for up to, but not exceeding, 72 hours as a part of a new visa-free stay program the Chinese government implemented for Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. I was fortunate enough to spend a night on the Bund and a day on the town before heading back to the airport after a 26 hour layover. The view from M on the Bund immediately comes to mind. 

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The final page of stamps I have is the same photo that greeted you at the beginning of this article: stamps from Korean, Singaporean, and Japanese immigration officials. Each time I leave Japan on my work visa, I get a special stamp saying I have a certain resident status and that I am permitted to return to Japan on my visa. Seeing those reminds me of coming “home” to Japan, and also conjures up memories of my first international trip from Japan to Korea, last September, to see friends from college. I will be back to Korea again in the near future, but nothing will equal the excitement from the first time when I touched down at Gimahe International Airport last September. From the bind at customs returning from Korea this July to the relative ease with which I am usually whisked through customs in Japan, lost memories and images always come back to me when I look at my passport’s ever-filling pages. 

With an adventure to Taipei on the horizon within the next ten days, I felt the urge to flip through my passport, and my passport decided to bring back some great memories and long forgotten stores of being out on the road. Open your passport sometime and look at it. You’ll find out it is the shortest and most interesting novel you will ever read. 

What stories and stamps does your passport hold? 

Being a Conservative Traveler

Politics is an issue from which I have promised to steer clear on this website and an issue I will continue to avoid on this website, as it is my travel website. Those of you that know me in real life, on twitter, or via other channels know that politics is one of the most important facets of my life, alongside my family, my friends, travel, Japanese language, and a few other interests. During my life in Japan and my travels through Asia over the past five months, I have met some interesting people both on and off the travel circuit. My fellow travelers are often cordial. They are often nice. Many times, we share great experiences and memories on the road and at home. There is, however, one thing that I notice what is often different when I am on the road and meeting people, choosing what I will do, where I will go, etc. during my trips: politics. 

Do not worry. I am not going to discuss my views on Obamacare, gun rights, or any other political issue on this website because it is my travel website. However, today I am going to discuss what it is like to be a (politically) conservative traveler and how my experiences may differ from liberals who travel or even from other people I meet on the road who do not disclose their political affiliation. I have not seen any other articles on this topic, so I hope it is interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking. 

Let’s start. 

During the last two weeks in Southeast Asia, a common theme of discussion in hostel common rooms, at the bar, or just with other random people has often risen: travel motivation. This discussion has often led to contentious discussions and is one of the issues I would like to discuss in this post. Many of the young backpackers I met on the road often had similar answers to the question: “Why are you traveling?”

The common theme amongst many of these answers had to do with a dislike of their home country (usually the United States), hatred of their country’s own culture and customs, a desire to leave home and their family forever, and a desire to see cultures that are “better” than their own culture. These answers were quite different than some of the standard answers I expected to hear on the road: “to take some time away from my life at home,” “to experience and immerse myself in another culture,” etc.

The latter, while I consider them liberal, are totally reasonable and acceptable. After all, I have done road trips in the United States and I am living (for the second time) in a country and culture that is very different than the United States. I have immersed myself in the Japanese language and culture, but there are some things I will not do. For example, Wearing a kimono (traditional Japanese clothes) is one of the cultural elements I do not feel comfortable embracing as a Westerner and choose not to do when I have the opportunity to do so.

It was extremely hard for me to bite my tongue when I heard the former answers to this question, but I did so because my trip was not about engaging in political arguments. It was about travel, photography, eating local fare, and meeting people along the way. 

When I travel, I do not travel out of dislike of my home country’s culture, a desire to never return home, or see “better” cultures than Western culture. As a matter of fact, when I travel, my motivations are completely different. I tell everyone that I am proud to be an American and that I am proud of Western values and do not subscribe to cultural relativism. I travel to see the sights of the world, see locals interact and live in their own environment, to try local food, and then recount and share these experiences with my family, friends, and others whom have never been to these locations. Not once have I considered another culture to be “better” than mine, nor have I wished never to return home while on the road. I would not know what to do without my family and friends back at home. 

Critiquing and criticizing one’s own country while on the road has never been high on my to-do list as I have traveled, but I ran into some in Malaysia who were eager to discuss nothing but how awful the United States is. It all started with a  discussion about how superior the Malaysian medical system is to the American system because of how cheap some prescriptions are. The discussion devolved into how they were a superior nation because their monarchy could suppress dissenters and force legislation through their government even if members did not want it to happen. Others quipped about how more taxes needed to be paid, yet either did not pay their own taxes or did not have an answer when I asked if they enjoyed paying taxes. 

I think these viewpoints also help determine where we go on the road, as well. Some of my fellow travelers had a field day talking about economic inequality out on the road and used their experiences living and backpacking in squalor in some corners as a great way to criticize capitalism and the free market.

I don’t know about you, but when I travel, I usually do not go out on the streets looking for a political agenda or trying to find and explain “economic inequality.” I would much rather walk down the back alley, say hello the the local merchant, and buy as much food as I can at his stand to help his family and his business! I never thought anything of those people with less except marvel about how hard they were working to better themselves and their family.

I had a great time in Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Macau, and Singapore because these cities offered great historical lessons on a subject in which I have great interest (European influence in Asia as well as 19th Century history as a whole). Some other travelers did not know how I went to these cities because they were “too developed to gain a perspective” or because they were “ruined by European influence.” If anything, the European influence in these cities makes for an even more interesting and fascinating journey. The aforementioned cities have such an interesting array of architecture, street names, food, etc. because of their time as European colonies. I certainly recommend trying some of the Macanese food in Taipa, Macau. You will be in for a real treat with the Cantonese take on Portuguese food!

It was too bad to find out that some people were so jaded by their economic and political beliefs that they would not go to some of the “Asian Tiger” economies or couldn’t fully enjoy destinations because of British influence.

Travel motivations seem to be one of the main differences between conservative and liberal-minded backpackers I have met while out on the road over the past five months. 

Most of the conservative travelers I have met on the road also had a strong connection with their families and their homes as opposed to the more liberal travelers I have met. Answers ranging from “never wanting to come home again” to “at least five months so I can forget about home, return to renew a visa, and then get back on the road” to “I don’t know; I’ll go home when I run out of money,” were prevalent when I spoke with many of the liberal backpackers out there. The conservatives I met always had a goal of returning home once their trip was over, either to be with their family, to plan their next trip, or to enjoy being back in a familiar place even if for a short period of time. 

I don’t know how some of the backpackers are out on the road for months at a time without contacting their loved ones or longing for one of their mother’s home-cooked meals. I always send postcards to my family and friends when I am on the road to help share the experience with them and explain what it is like in a far off land. Even though I have been away from home for more than five months, I cannot wait to have the next home-cooked meal when I get home, and I look forward to seeing all of my family and friends at all times. Maybe we are just wired differently. 

A fellow traveler I met from Scotland said it well last week in Hong Kong when he basically said that we were able to separate our cultures from others while out on the road and see what parts of other cultures were good and which other elements were bad. Instead of coming with a completely open mind without a sense of norms and values, we come with a perspective- a perspective that has guided us through our lives and will continue to guide us until we die. I don’t think I could have said it much better than he did.

It is always hard for me to relate with other travelers on the road when they do not have a respect for their own culture and their own nation and when they lack a basis with their family and their homeland. Certainly, this is a conservative perspective. 

All hope for friendship out on the road is not lost, though. I made some truly amazing friends in Singapore last week as we discussed our previous travels and our desires for future travels. I met with these people in different locations later on in my trip and we had a great time sharing new experiences and making new memories. I do not know their political orientation, nor do I care what it is. 

Even though I vehemently disagree with some of the motives behind these travelers I met during my trip, I will continue to provoke discussion and find out why people travel. It always ends with interesting and fascinating answers. You never know which traveler will be fascinating and which traveler will take you on an amazing trip through a city they know like the back of their hand. 

At the end of the day, perspective makes a big difference when it comes to traveling. As you know from my previous posts, I bring a unique perspective to each city I visit, the people I meet, and the foods I try. I hope you appreciate my perspective and I look forward to sharing posts about my destinations this week as time allows. 

Look at my tagline, it tells the whole story: “Travel is the only expense that makes you richer.”

Have you ever met a conservative on the road? What is your travel perspective? Please share and add your comments in the box below: