There’s No Place Like Home…

I did it. I made it home. And I am so happy to be back. Even though I was gone for three months, sometimes I still can’t believe I did it. I went away for three months and traveled something like 24,000 miles. It still surprises me.

From Mexico City, I got in to LAX near midnight, caught a shuttle to the Super Eight Airport motel, and got a good night’s sleep. The next morning I left at 10:00 to make sure I had enough time at check-in. I figured the rest of my bank account would somehow end up with American Airlines. The American ticket was a separate purchase on my part, so that I could start and end in Los Angeles (the only way to squeeze South America into my RTW ticket). That meant the LAX  SJC flight was only a local, domestic flight, subject to checked baggage fees and many more restrictions, including a $25 fee for the first checked bag and $35 for the second one. I got myself back down to two carry-on bags and one checked bag, and of course, Big Red was heavy. But I got lucky. At the check-in terminal, I showed the agent my completely separate RTW Delta ticket. I told her about how happy I was to be home and how I had tried to mail a bunch home but had been thwarted by the cost at DHL. She decided to take pity on me, look up the bag requirements of AeroMexico (which she *so* did not have to do, at all), and allow me one seventy pound bag checked – free. Wow. That was a real welcome-home gift. I won’t forget it, American.

It appears that LAX is in contention for first place as the TSA poster-child. It was an unwelcome reminder of how screwed up the “security” is in our country. All this scrutiny doesn’t change a darned thing and it only puts everyone in a bad mood. I think treating all our citizens and fliers as suspects is a really crappy thing to do. I know it’s making everyone’s trip more stressful and it’s making the jobs of flight attendants harder. After having my stuff dropped all over the floor by the inspecting agent and taking off my shoes and half my clothes, I finished with the hassle that is LAX. I will do my best never to fly through there again. Why not just run my immigration status and a police record check when I buy the ticket, and then check my fingerprint at the airport? It’d feel a whole lot less invasive than sending me through a machine where strangers get to see me in my underwear. What is it going to take before we realize how pointless this is? I am not the only one fed up with the state of air travel morale in the US: check out the twenty-year veteran flight attendant’s story. He went out via the slide!

Still, though, I was thrilled to be getting on the last airplane. On this journey, I have taken 25 flights. Remarkably, nothing bad has happened on the planes and my luggage has never been lost. I think that’s pretty impressive, not to mention a testament to the success of the bar coding of baggage. Our plane was a really little one, a Brazilian made plane with 44 seats and very, very small overhead bins. I had to gate-check my carry-on blue bag, but that was just fine with me. Before you know it, we were in the air and then on the ground at HOME: San Jose International Airport. I got my bag from the gate, then picked up my big suitcase from the baggage carousel for the last time, walked outside and met Tom at the curb. I was so happy, so relieved, and so grateful for all the luck and help I have had on this journey.

Home looked different than I remembered, and of course, I noticed all the dirt, the yardwork that needs doing and the fact that I really need new exterior paint. When I went in, it looked even more crooked than I remembered, and I realized that I also need new interior paint. Tom didn’t kill any of the houseplants (my orchid is even growing a new leaf), and there were boxes from all over the world all over my front table. Most of what I shipped home arrived in one piece, except for the ebony bowls I sent home from Tanzania; most of them snapped. The parcel I had shipped from the craft market in India was the most compressed bundle of goods l I have ever seen. Otherwise, though, all was well. My long ebony crocodile, the spices from Indonesia, the shoes from Italy, the mittens from Sweden, they all made it.

I still cannot get over my good luck on this journey. No one ever hurt me, or tried to physically accost me. I was not robbed (just a little conning here and there, and some overcharging). No one stole my identity, and my passport was right where I left it that time in India. I had mostly good weather, sometimes exceptionally good weather, and saw some pretty elusive animals and birds in Africa. Generally my faith in human nature has been proved to be well founded. I feel refreshed and ready for a new challenge. Well, after a few days’ rest, anyway.

I don’t know if I’ll keep blogging, but I might if I find something worth writing about. I’d like to thank you all for reading and commenting on my stories. It has helped me keep going during the rough spots and helped me remember that I am not alone. Go team!

I’ll close with a few practical observations about world travel.

1. Shower shoes and earplugs are your friends.
2. Never leave luggage or any bags unzipped, unlatched or otherwise open on your first night in a hotel. You might not like what gets in there.
3. Always shut your room completely at twilight and spray insecticide or light a coil before you go to eat dinner. I know, this sounds toxic. But it needs to be toxic: to the enemy! Mosquitoes are an international plague.
4. Fleas jump and seem to disappear when you try to smack them; small flies simply resettle an inch away from their prior position.
5. In a new hotel room, always sniff the sheets, pillows and towels before you get comfortable. You might have to change rooms or request clean linen. Make sure the water actually works and gets hot, and that the shower doesn’t leave you wishing you didn’t need it. In a budget spot, undo the sheet and check the mattress for bugs.
6. The dirtier the streets outside, the more stuff you’ll need to check inside your hotel before you accept the room.
7. Never order the fish unless you know there is a river or a beach nearby. Theoretically, you’ll have seen fish vendors making sales while you were looking out the window on the drive in.
8. Sometimes going vegetarian actually is good for your health (have you seen what passes for a butcher shop in some parts of the world?).
9. Buy a large bottle of drinking water (~1.5 liters) either from your hotel, at the airport, from a shop, whatever, before you go to bed. That way, you won’t brush your teeth with unsafe tap water.
10. Bring a sewing kit. If not for your shirt button, then for a hole in your mosquito net.
11. Check the toilet before you sit down, even if you’re half asleep. There might be insects, snakes or rodents. Same goes for your shoes.
12. Always keep an emergency pair of clean socks and underwear in your hand baggage. You never know when you’ll need them.
13. They don’t have the “gentle cycle” of laundry in the developing world. That’s your job in the hotel sink. Clothes seem to have it tough there.
14. A flashlight will be necessary at some point on your trip. Possibly often.
15. Raw fruits and vegetables will look appealing, especially in tropical heat. If you eat them, you could end up on an IV drip in the hospital for an evening. If you didn’t peel it, forget it.
16. Dehydration is a “gateway” illness for a whole host of other problems. Remember to drink enough, even if you don’t feel that thirsty. Keep track of your consumption.
17. As near as I can tell, the absolute minimum of words you need to know in the host country’s language is five. They are: hello, thank you, water, no, and toilet. The rest you can usually gesticulate, draw or get through by pointing, and “okay” is somehow universal. People will, however, appreciate it if you know more than those five.
18. Don’t assume the worst immediately. When you are frustrated, alone and tired, it’s easy to do that, but it’s usually not helpful and not accurate. Breathe and remind yourself that you chose to leave your home and you would rather be here than stuck at a desk.
19. If you get a strange or bad feeling about a person or a situation, listen to it.
20. Helping others is good karma and you will need that later. Help whenever it feels safe.
21. Don’t worry about waking up on time in the morning; the chickens and donkeys will help you with that.
22. A bus ride is always longer than a plane but not always longer than taking a train. A “comfort” or “luxury” bus can actually be an improvement over any other method of transit. It’s often the only way to see some beautiful parts of the country you’re visiting. Downside: pee breaks by the side of the road. Don’t drink too much.
23. There is no shame in bringing your own roll of toilet paper.
24. Haggling is a sport. You may not win, but try to place. You don’t want to look at that souvenir later and only remember how much you overpaid.
25. Your hat is not only useful for sun protection. You can use it as a fan, a bug swatter, a seat-saver or a cover-up for your tout-attracting camera. It can also hide your nationality if it’s big enough.
26. Count your change. Then inspect it for evidence of counterfeiting.
27. When you leave the US with cash, make sure it’s in small denominations that are in good shape. Best if they appear to have been fresh from the mint, with no ink marks or tears of any kind.
28. People who try to convince you that you are at fault or owe them something are probably people who are trying to con you or hurt you. It is their hallmark.
29. Tell yourself that everything will eventually be fine.
30. An adventure is what you have when you are no longer in control of your environment.

Just go. It’s good out there.

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4 Responses to There’s No Place Like Home…

  1. Meggi Raeder says:

    Welcome home, Jennifer. I will miss your stories!! I like your observations at the end and share them. I found similar on my 2 months in Asia. I am glad you shared so much of your experience with us and feel inspired to go out there and travel and experience what the world has to offer. Africa, here I come! This is my next destination for 2 months Jan-March 2011.
    Welcome home!
    Meggi

  2. mnkittel says:

    Great wrap-up to your travel story. You do realize that I’m going to harp on you writing that book constantly now that you’re back, right?

  3. d says:

    Belated welcome back. I have been in Seattle last week. I can’t wait to see Eat, Pray, Love…although it is not your story it will make me think of you. You so inspired me that I did an email blog while in Seattle. Emailing pictures with a story every day to a few friends. Reading back the emails was an enjoyable memory of the trip. Due to you, I have this desire to go to Zanzibar and dive.

  4. Joe H. says:

    as you’re back home,and Igor and I are going to be in your neck of the woods on Thurs and Fri, want to meet up for dinner?

    we’ll be back in town next Thurs for a VSO meeting, too.

    -Joe

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