The Cost of a Year Around the World, Part 2: The Spend

Last time, we talked about the budget process for a year around the world, where I estimated that it would take $28,000 per person (around $500 per week) to circumnavigate the globe (at an enjoyable pace) in roughly a year. After the 54 weeks of travel across 5 continents and 28 countries (31 with layovers), we had spent $25,286.50 per person ($468.27 per week)! Below, I’ll talk about what we actually spent our money on and how we kept our costs down, as well as how you might be able to spend a year traveling on even less.

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Our breakdown of spend for the year.

Sticking to a Budget

A budget only works if you stick to it, so I built a tool to help us track our spending through the entire trip. It’s an Excel spreadsheet with tabs that I tracked all of our spend on in five categories – lodging, food, travel, personal hygiene and health, and fun. It then calculates total spend by category for each week and by country. You can download it for free below to use on your trips, and if you have any questions feel free to contact me!

Download the World Budget Template

P.S., one thing I would change about my budget is to write the spend in on the day the event occurred, not when we purchased tickets. This is the same day for most things, but for travel will help you sort spend better by region. For example, spend in LATAM looked way higher originally because it included the tickets for our flight to New Zealand, but that should actually be part of the Oceania part of the trip. I’ve made adjustments to the data manually below, but it was a pain to do.

What our budget went to

Because I love data, I ran an analysis on our expenses from the trip and below describe our breakdown of what we expected compared to actual spend by category. As an overview, travel was definitely the biggest part of our budget, which is unsurprising when you’re circumnavigating the world. But even this, as well as food and lodging cost less than we thought. And as avid hikers and explorers, we found tons to do that was fun and free.

Our weekly total spend by region.

Travel

Expected: $200 per person per week
Actual: $162.24 per person per week

As mentioned above, travel was our biggest budget category and is nearly twice the size of our nearest other spend categories (food and lodging). This is primarily because I set out with a goal for us to circumnavigate the world AND chase summer, so we had to travel round the globe in a giant sinusoidal shape (that’s a sideways “S” shape for, for those of you who don’t know). We had to cross both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and shift between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and that much distance to cover in a year while leaving time to enjoy things means we paid money for flights. It was normally a couple hundred dollars here or there, but there were also a few big-ticket items like the flight from Phoenix to Mexico City, to and from the Galapagos, from Santiago to Auckland, and the flight home from Berlin. Trains, which were really only available Western Europe as a mode of transit (save for Russia and Indonesia), were surprisingly often as expensive as flights. Bus was often the slowest, but cheapest and most interesting option between locations (even the bus ride from hell counts).

Our best rule for saving money became the two-week rule: unless there was no other way, we booked flights only if we were travelling more than two weeks out. If we were within the two-week period, we caught a bus or some other mode of transit instead. Rome2Rio helped us out a lot in figuring that out.

Weekly spend on travel by each region; definitely pricier in Oceania and Europe, while Asia’s is higher because we bought 2-week JR passes in Japan.

Lodging

Expected: $105 per person per week
Actual: $78.39 per person per week

Another expected, constant cost of our trip was a place to sleep each night. We had a budget of $15 per person per night, and what we could get for that varied a lot both between and within countries — heck, it varied a lot even within the same city. Prime example was Cartagena, where a private hostel bedroom within the walled city with the bed taking up nearly the entire space, no AC, and gaping holes in the ceiling that let mosquitos in cost us as much as an air-conditioned, modern room with a TV just outside the city’s walls.

My primary strategy to keep cost down was research, research, research. If I had the time or knew we were going to be somewhere for a while in advance, I checked Hotels.com, Booking.com, and HostelWorld.com for the cheapest deal, looking in particular for multiple-day stay discounts. If it was last minute, I skipped HostelWorld and just stuck with Hotels.com and Booking.com, looking for last-minute discounts.

We also cut costs by having transit sometimes double as lodging, taking overnight buses, flights and trains. This was particularly helpful in South America, where long-haul buses are commonplace and first-class seats were affordable for travelers, even on our budget. For flights, the airport often doubled as our accommodation, as we would find a quiet part of the airport and rolled out our camping mattresses before or after our flight. Since people frequently sleep overnight in airports (there’s a whole website dedicated to it), most airport staff don’t bat an eye.

Lastly, we cut about a month’s worth of lodging (and food) costs and had the most amazing time possible by doing the obvious: visiting where we had friends and family currently living. It meant we had a happy host, a welcoming bed, amazing food, and often a far better guide than the internet to the area.

Weekly spend on lodging by region; the spend in Asia is so high primarily because of Japan, but also due to a few nights of splurging on a hotel room here and there, and lower in Europe because of stretches of stays with friends and family.

Food

Expected: $105 per person per week
Actual: $89.66 per person per week

Like having a place to sleep, you always gotta have something to eat, but we found while food could vary wildly by country, we had more control over it than the cost of lodging. If you’re staying in a hostel in almost any country, you can pick up ingredients from a local market and cook a meal for a fraction of the cost of a meal out. This played a big role in making Western Europe affordable, where we saved for one nicer ~$25 meal a day and otherwise snacked on homemade sandwiches and salads. The only caveat I would give here is that there is an opportunity, no, an enjoyability cost. Because a place’s cuisine is often unique and singular to a place (like the culture), it’s worth springing the money to enjoy at least a couple of meals and understand how the locals eat. We would rather spend a little extra on food over lodging any day (which usually gives you less of a window into culture), and our actual spend reflects that.

Beyond cooking your own meals, the other way to save costs is the above-mentioned stay-with-friends-and-family method. Not much can beat a home-cooked meal, and in many countries your more rural relatives have better tips on the best cheap places to eat.

Weekly spend on food by geography; Asia is high primarily due to volume of food and not necessarily cost, and costs in Europe are lower due to a lot of staying with friends and family, netting us delicious meals.

Personal hygiene/health

Expected: $20 per person per week
Actual: $41.88 per person per week; $11.46 per person per week without our year of travel health insurance

So depending on whether you want to count the pre-trip costs in the budget, I was either wildly under-estimating this one or just a little over-estimating it. When I put together the trip budget, I originally dropped the pre-trip expenses into a different spreadsheet and built the travel budget without it, so I wasn’t counting the travel insurance. As I mentioned in the last post, that travel insurance wasn’t useful beyond peace of mind, because even when I took a fall in Peru and needed an X-ray, the full cost of the visit was the equivalent of ~$200 USD and it was difficult to keep track of receipts and submit them for reimbursement while moving around so much.

Otherwise, this category sat pretty unused with the exception of repairing our equipment and restocking medicine, which I’d recommend purchasing when you are getting modestly low, not when you’re low or out, because there are some countries that just don’t have certain medicines. Pharmacists in Indonesia and Vietnam, for example, had no idea what bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol) was, so we were out until we got to Hong Kong.

The equipment repair and replacement was also pretty variable, and mostly consisted of us repairing the same pairs of shoes we wore throughout the trip. In general, a good rule to determine whether you should repair or replace is look at the current socioeconomic status of the country around you; depressingly, it’s affordable to get things repaired when you’re in a poorer country, but to buy something new when you’re in a richer country, just because of the variation in cost of labor. In some countries, we couldn’t even find people who still repaired camping equipment or shoes.

Weekly spend on personal hygiene, medical, and emergency by geography. The cost in Oceania is so high because we bought a UV sterilizer when our water pump broke, and in Europe we had to renew travel insurance.

Fun

Expected: $100 per person per week
Actual: $96.10 per person per week

I’m thrilled to see the budget for fun experiences and souvenirs is almost spot-on with what I predicted, because I wasn’t sure if I had dramatically under-or over-estimated. We started out in South America being cheap as hell and got a little spend happy in a couple of other places (Japan, Western Europe, looking at you). We did have a couple of big splurges on the trip, like the five-star Galapagos cruise with a Cordon Bleu-trained chef on board (why our LATAM bar is so tall) and fine pens/hobby equipment in Japan. I also placed meals in really nice restaurants in this category because they felt more like experiences than food. But overall, we managed to keep costs down by being outdoorsy people and going for hikes or walking around town. We would also ask locals for recommendations on what to do for fun, as these tended to be way cheaper and more interesting than whatever was set up for tourists.

Weekly spend on fun experiences and mementos by geography; the cost in LATAM is our $3,000 Galapagos cruise, and everything in Oceania cost so much money to do that we basically on did free hikes.

How to do it on less

There are two ways you could travel for a year on less: make fewer hops between countries, and stick with cheaper countries. We stayed in a location 1-2 weeks before moving on, which meant we were paying a lot in travel expenses. We also intentionally visited some more expensive countries (New Zealand, Japan, France, Germany), because we wanted to see them. If you weren’t set on the idea of circumnavigating the planet, stick with just Asia or LATAM and save yourself the cost of cross-continental hops.

Next, I’ll be doing a breakdown by country of our costs and provide some tips on how to save money in each country.

Read Part 1: The Budget.

Read Part 3: Country Comparison.

Vox Populi’s “Peace Be Upon You” at MESS 2017

 

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Bullet holes around windows on a building in Sarajevo, likely from attempts by snipers to kill civilian occupants hiding inside.

October hosts Sarajevo’s annual theater festival, MESS. We learned this through another person on our bus, a Swiss diver here in Sarajevo to meet watch her boyfriend perform as part of the theater group, Vox Populi. He meets us at the bus station and introduces himself as Syrian, though he now lives in Bulgaria. The two of them invite us to come see their play the following night. “It’s about the experiences of refugees,” they tell us, “it’s titled Mir Vama (Peace Be Upon You).”

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Sunset on the way to the theater.

It’s already packed when we arrive at the Sarajevo War Theater on the evening of the play, and we get tickets only from the kindness of someone who had two extra. The theater stage is set with little more than a line of tape up front and three vertical silk screens in the middle. As the lights dim two people walk onto the stage: Mila Bancheva and Ricardo Ibrahim, the man we met the day before. In what is part play and part documentary, the pair use videos of interviews with refugees projected onto the silk screens, symbolic scenes acted out in their minimalist set, and their own monologues to bring the stories of refugees to life.

Their interviewees are Syrian, Egyptian, Kurdish, people’s children and parents and brothers and sisters. They speak about leaving their countries, what made them leave, what they left behind. They talk about a reluctance to go, and a story about people who left their homes thinking it was temporary and now decades later, they still wait to return. One man speaks of narrowly escaping death when a group of men fired several shots into his taxi. This wasn’t enough to force him to leave. Instead, it was the death of his infant daughter in an accidental raid on his house that prompted him to go. One of the actors speaks about the sensation of bombs being dropped on her city, first of fear, then of normalcy. Someone from the rafters drops a heavy box onto a stage, and it reverberates in the silence. The actors speak of hunger and starvation, as one of them desperately tears apart a pomegranate to eat, red-purple juice covering them. They speak of dodging mines, of the logistics of getting through porous borders, and then less porous borders. As refugees, they adjust to life as it is and as it must be.

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I didn’t take photos during the performance, but this post-performance shot gives an idea of the stage setup. The two actors, Diego and Mila, are front left in front of a silk screen.

Mir Vama reveals the refugees as painfully human, and our inability or unwillingness to help them palpable. Nowhere is that more evident than during a scene in the play where actress Mila cradles a mandolin she has been playing. She carries it to the front of the stage, and introduces it as her baby. And then she offers it to us, arms outstretched, but still lovingly cradling the object. “Will someone take my baby?” She pauses as seconds crawl by and we watch her. She offers it again, to the other side of the audience, “Please, will you take my baby?” Her face is solemn, imploring. I feel the urge to rise and take the mandolin from her, but I can’t tell if this is just part of the play. I can’t tell if this is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what is right to do. Mila asks us, again, “Will anyone take my baby?” The seconds crawl by as we all stare at her, actionless.

But no one stands up.

 

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The Sarajevo War Theater stage, post-performance.

 

Some short scenes are of Mir Vama are available on YouTube here, while the original playbill for Mir Vama is available here in Bosnian, and here in English.

Want to see what Vox Populi are up to currently? You can follow them on Facebook here (in Bulgarian, but Google Translate works alright)

Nikolaevo Farm Days

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It’s harvest season here in Nikolaevo and Lela Stanka has relented to our requests to help her out on the Stoytchev farm. The first day we pick sweet peppers from rows of densely-packed plants. The plants sag from the weight of the peppers, some brilliant scarlet, others in stages of green and orange. We pick only the darkest reds, leaving the rest for Lela Stanka’s next harvest. She grins as she tells us that she’s already harvested peppers from these plants a dozen times. But there are always more peppers.

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By the end of an hour, we’ve filled an entire 20-lb. sack with peppers, soon to be roasted and peeled and turned into delicious meals and preserves for the winter.  I’m personally hoping for lutenitza, a Bulgarian variant of red pepper spread that pairs beautifully with everything from bread to eggs to meat to yogurt. Seriously, it’s good on everything, ok? Don’t worry, a recipe is coming (in a later post).

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We return the following day to harvest potatoes, a slightly more complicated task that involves digging and dust. Harvesting the potatoes well takes effort, and Lela Stanka shows us how to dig between the rows of shriveled potato plants to find the potatoes hidden beneath the soil without accidentally slicing too many in half.

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The dry summer has been hard on the potato crop, and this year’s yield is supposedly a modest one. Busy with chores and unworried they would rot in such dry weather, Lela Stanka left them in the ground. With a few hours of hoeing and digging, though, we’ve littered the ground with an abundance of potatoes. Most are red-skinned, and as we collect them Lela Stanka remarks on how well they’ve done. “They’re a family heirloom, passed down in the family and planted for decades. I’ll plant them again next year too.” We finish gathering the potato into sacks and boxes, store them in a nearby shed, and head home to scrub the dirt from our hands, feet, and faces.

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Later, when we speak on Skype with Stoytcho’s dad, we tell him about our work on the family farm. He worked the farm when he lived here too before moving to the U.S. to pursue a PhD in physics. He probably hasn’t done farm work in decades. But when we mention our potato harvest he pauses, then replies, “Potatoes? It’s a bit late in the season for that, isn’t it?”

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Ars Electronica Festival 2017

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A robot stops walking in response to a barrier (hand) placed in its path at ARS Electronica Festival 2017.

Growing up as a kid, the question was always whether you went into science or art. It was this weird dichotomy in learning, where there was the precision and quantitative of math, biology, chemistry, and physics, and then the interpretative and creative of art, music, language, and history. Two ways to understand the world standing in opposite sides and never mixing, like students at their first middle school dance.

I understand now that this separation is artificial and that the skills needed in each field intermingle – there is creativity in science, and precision in art – but the world seems to still cling to that science-art dichotomy, where ne’er the two spheres shall meet. After all, we don’t often talk of the exacting quantitative precision of the artist’s work, nor do we speak of the creative interpretations of the biologist’s findings. But why? Why don’t we more often unite these two disparate worlds, or acknowledge that the separation is artificial and never really existed at all?

For me and anyone who has ever had this thought, Ars Electronica is the dreamland you never knew existed, where the artificial barriers between art and science dissolve. It’s a year-round museum in Linz, Austria, but every fall Ars Electronica hosts a festival showcasing the creations that arise from the fusion of art and science. Here science and technology create art and history, and art and history build science and technology. From synchronized drone aerobatics to temporary electro-conductive arm tattoos that control your smartphone, the ARS Electronica Festival is four days of wonder, thought, and inspiration. Here’s what we captured in our visit*:

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Repurposing of industrial robot arms for shadowplay art.

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Doge overlooks a cryptocurrency gathering.

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The LightSail II in the Linz Cathedral, an interactive mesh-and-PVC pipe construction the size of a whale that responds to touch by varying sounds and projected images.

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The crowd in the basement of POST CITY for the Ars Electronica Festival Concert.

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A robot constructs a three-towered sculpture for nothing but concrete chips and string, while its creators look on from the right.

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RFID-reflective clothing, meant to protect your identity in the wireless future.

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A demonstration of DuoSkinDuoSkin, conductive temporary tattoos that enable you to control your smartphone or other electronic devices. Here, a man demonstrates skipping songs and changing the volume on a phone’s music playlist.

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A man reloads markers on an industrial robot arm repurposed for sketching.

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A woman interacts with a display that explores the ability of machines to read and respond to human needs.

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An artist explains his interactive darkroom-and-flashlight display.

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Visitors watch and film a synchronized drone show.

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Attendees at the festival’s seminars, which explore everything from the ethics and law of AI to art created from AI learning.

And a couple of videos:

It can be a little overwhelming to visit the ARS Electronica Festival for the first time, so here are some useful tips to help you get around:

  1. Trust but verify – we sometimes got mixed answers from volunteers as to where/when things were happening. Ask a few people to get a good idea of when/where the big events are.
  2. English speakers welcome – Many of the most fascinating events are in Austrian, but they offer free real-time translations! Grab a pair of headphones on the way into the room, or ask a volunteer on hand if they have any.
  3. Don’t buy a metro pass – Your ARS pass includes free travel on some of the city’s trams, at least from the Linz Train Station to the ARS Electronica Museum and back. (Applicable to full festival pass, not sure about 1-day passes)
  4. The ARS Electronica Concert is amazing – The concert runs late into the night and you might be tempted to skip it if you’re relying on the train to get home. Go for at least a few hours because it’s amazing and absolutely worth it. Tickets are free with the 4-day pass and can be picked up at the ticketing/info booth area in Post City.
  5. Leave time to explore – While most of the events are focused in Post City, there are events throughout Linz for ARS Electronica. Leave time to see those and to wander around Post City without any direction, because stumbling onto something unexpectedly can be thought-transforming.

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* I understand copyright law is a bit more strict in Europe, so if you’re an artist or copyright owner whose work is listed above and want it taken down, please email me.

How not to hostel

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Part of our 8-bed hostel room in Prague.

Let’s file this one under bad hostel etiquette: yelling at the other people in the room to stop making any noise at 8 am. On the one hand, it is 8 am and anyone who was out partying last night wants to sleep in longer. On the other hand, we had to hear you come in late last night and we’ve got places to be.

We’ll call this person “Dude” and in an effort to acknowledge that dickery such as his occurs every population, leave his nationality out. We’ve known since Dude checked in that he has a problem with morning noise, since Stoytcho and I have been up early every morning to explore Prague and found him groaning and growling at any hint of noise. Even when we talk in whispers and pack up quietly, we hear him tossing in his bunk huffing and muttering angrily.

This morning we’re checking out to head to Linz, Austria, and we’re not the only ones up – more than half of the room is awake and preparing to leave, from pulling on clothes to packing away food and water for the day. This proves too much for Dude, whose chorus of groans escalates into a crescendo before he jerks his bed’s curtain open. “This is a hostel! How can you make so much noise? We are supposed to be a community and people are trying to sleep here!” he hisses furiously.

Having traveled through more than a dozen countries and countless terrible sleeping situations, I’ll have none of his accusations. “We’re all on different schedules and some of us get up early. We try not to make noise, but we’re not going to change our plans for you.” He shot back with another retort, and I pointed out that more than half the people in the room were already up. “Look, I can give you earplugs if you want them, but otherwise deal with it. I countered. Rebuked, Dude let out a hiss and yanked his curtain shut again, muttering profanity under his breath.

I would’ve liked to have defused the situation a little less bluntly, but dealing with discomforts like this one are a part of hostel life and you have to adapt. If you get cold easily, you carry an extra blanket or you ask the hostel for one. If you must have tea in the morning, you carry tea. If you can’t sleep with noises, you bring earplugs. And if you can’t adapt, you probably shouldn’t stay in hostels.

There are definitely best practices when hosteling, such as not carrying on conversations late at night or early in the morning, throwing things, fighting over the temperature or whether the window should be closed or open. You should work to make it a liveable space for everyone, sharing outlets to charge phones or computers and trying to keep it clean, because you are a community. Sometimes there will be disagreements or someone will do something that bothers you. In that case, it’s okay to politely ask if they’ll stop doing it. But getting upset and yelling about it is pointless and seriously not cool, Dude.

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After all that unpleasantness, here’s a bumblebee.

Truffle Hunting Lessons in Prague

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The not-so-humble truffle, in cross-section.

If you couldn’t already tell from the mushroom foraging adventure in Australia and the hundreds of mushroom photos on this blog, I love fungi. They’re an underappreciated group, which is unfair because some of them taste delicious. But you could spend all day trying to convince people to eat shaggy manes and wine caps from their backyards and get nowhere*.

Not so with the truffle, the beloved subterranean nugget prized for its rich, heavenly flavor that now appears in everything from fries to honey in our most upscale restaurants. We shave tiny flakes of it into pastas, buy real and imitation extracts, and ogle tiny chunks of the fresh stuff protected in temperature- and humidity-controlled glass cases in only the finest of gourmet grocers. If there is royalty in the mushroom culinary world, the truffle is king.

And now we’re getting a lesson in hunting them here in Prague! This is all thanks my amazing friend and mentor Zoë, who gifted Stoytcho and I a truffle-hunting lesson with the man who supplies 80% of Prague’s restaurants with the delicacy, Petr Synek.

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The park where we’ll have our lesson.

Petr meets us and another guest on a warm morning at the park, a large gray hunting dog tugging him along. “This is Nela,” Petr tells us as he kneels down to let her off the leash. Nela immediately bolts off and runs circles in the fields, “She has a lot of energy, which is good for hunting truffles,” Petr laughs as he calls her back in Czech. Nela bounds back to him, and he begins the lesson.

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Petr introduces Nela and covers Truffle Hunter Training 101.

First, Petr describes the three ways people hunt for truffles: alone, with pigs, and with dogs. “Some people are able to detect small clouds of flies right near the truffles and know where to dig, but you miss most of the best specimens if you rely on this, so most people have pigs or train dogs,” Petr says. Historically, pigs were used because they were naturally attracted to the truffle scent, but they also love to eat truffles and hunters risk losing the truffle (and a few fingers) in the battle to get it back. “You see many old truffle hunters with four, three fingers, or parts of fingers missing, because they have to put their hand in the mouth of the pig to try and get a truffle.”

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Nela gets a treat.

Nowadays, most truffle hunters train dogs to find the prize. Petr describes how the Italians traditionally rub truffle oil on the nipples of breastfeeding dogs to train them, though doing so means that the dog will later show the same risk of trying to eat the truffle.  And Nela? “She’s trained in the Czech way, because we have a history of training dogs here during the Communist era,” Peter winks. He says another command in Czech and Nela bounds up. She knows it is time for training and treat-getting to begin.

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Nela searches for the scent of hidden truffle oil-soaked towels.

Petr walks us through Nela’s training, from the simple conditioning of associating a click noise with treats to finding a location that a truffle-oil soaked towel is hidden. Along the way, he points out the main pitfalls in training truffle-hunting dogs. First is the dog’s gender – you want a female dog, because sometimes a male dog will chase the scent of a female dog instead of a truffle, and you won’t know it for miles. Second is always training the dog with the same tools or in the same location, because she learns to associate treats with a location and not necessarily the truffle scent. And third is using only one source of truffle scent – the oil is cheaper to use in training than real truffles, but it doesn’t exactly replicate the scent of a true truffle. While Petr explains this, he trains Nela, hiding the oil-soaked towel in different places and rewarding her with treats as she finds it.

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A moment where she stands still (finally).

After training practice, our group walks further into the park where the trees shade us and the ground foliage is denser. Petr pulls a napkin-lined box out of his bag and opens it to reveal the real deal. They look like a black bark-covered nugget, but the scent gives it away as a truffle. “This is a black truffle. I only hunt black, summer, and some winter truffles,” he explains, “because white truffles are the most expensive and people are very territorial of their hunting grounds and will shoot rivals’ dogs.” Petr passes a truffle out to each of us and instructs us to hide it. We dash off while he distracts Nela with games.

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We hide truffles for Nela to hunt.

The three of us choose different locations, all about 100 feet away from each other. One of us hides a truffle in the roots of a tree; another hides it among the rocky outcrops off the trail. One of us puts it in a small hole under a rock. We return to Petr, who says a magic word and Nela is off, hunting for the scent of truffles. It’s easy for her to smell them in the warm morning air, and she finds all three in only a few minutes.

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Nela’s on a mission to find the last missing truffle.

After the lesson, the four of us return to Prague for a visit to a restaurant that buys Petr’s truffles. He arranges lunch as a part of the lesson, and the three of us get heaping plates of fresh pasta, chicken, and shaved truffle. He also gives us each a parting gift – half of a truffle each to take home and use. “Put it into the food at the end of cooking so it retains the most flavor, and use it in eggs, with pasta, or in a sauce. Enjoy!”

Want to have your own truffle hunting lesson in Prague? You can book it here.

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Chicken and truffle pasta, mmm…

*okay, so this is only partly ick factor – U.S. culture also largely lacks the mushroom-identifying experience that many European cultures have built over thousands of years.

Getting used to traveling

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One of a few ‘David Attenborough’ moments on our trip.

One of the best things about traveling is going to new places, seeing new things, eating new food, and meeting new people. Newness at its purest form – a landscape and culture a bit, a lot, or completely different from home. This is exciting and your synapses are firing at full speed, making memories and slowing time down as every new thing comes along. Enjoying it takes some doing though. It certainly wasn’t as amazing as advertised on travel blogs, and I went through a deal of personal change before really getting the most out of it.

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Display for Día de los Muertos, Mexico City.

It comes down to two factors. The first is simple and in my mind required : getting used to the consequences of traveling. On the road, where the language is hard to understand and the maps are unfamiliar, there’s an extra level of perceived danger or discomfort with every negative event. Is the sky pouring buckets? It’s worse now because all of your worldly belongings, including the clothes you have to sleep in on the bus tonight, are going to get soaked. Has the last bus home already left? It’s scarier (or so it feels) because there’s no taxi to take you home, your friend can’t come by to pick you up, and there’s no bus schedule anywhere. (Side-note : there usually is a taxi but it’s often very expensive, hard to contact, and harder to communicate with.)

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Early on in our trip – what have I gotten myself into.

I think many people have experience dealing with this added layer of uncertainty and anxiety. I certainly did not, and it took a long while on the road to learn to relax. Eventually I had to relax, for my own sake and for Natalie’s, but it took effort and experience. Missing the bus a few times taught me that it’s ok – there will be another way onward tomorrow, or we can always sleep where we are. Getting soaked (a particular peeve of mine) got much less frustrating the third time around. Practicing being positive and reacting less negatively changed my outlook on uncertainty and mishap entirely.

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There’s always another bus. Except when there isn’t. It’s ok though, plans change.

The second factor I think is more nuanced. It’s an appreciation of novelty. Where getting accustomed to discomfort brings the experience up from miserable to normal, learning to appreciate the new around you opens up the whole enjoyment of traveling. It took some time to embrace the experience of going somewhere far and unknown and hard to get to, just like learning to enjoy bitter beer or coffee.

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Sunsets are great practice – they’re almost universally great.

People are in general hard-wired to seek out novelty. Unfortunately, with modern life’s focus on routine and (often) drudgery, it’s easy to lose the taste for new experiences. Luckily, it does come back. And once it does, it becomes addicting in the best way possible. Arriving in a new city becomes less scary and more an opportunity to seek out things you haven’t seen before. Far flung adventures loom less and invoke more excited anticipation. Everything about travel comes with less resistance, because now you’re calm enough to focus on the good things. It took me personally well into Russia to fully open up, but every step along the way was easier and more rewarding than the last.

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The rewards are worth it. Especially the food.

Grand Strategy in Moscow

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Traffic outside of the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski

We’re sitting in a conference room at the Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, a 5-star luxury hotel beside the Moskva River. Bottles of sparkling water, notepads, and pencils are all neatly laid out on the table in front of us. To our left is a woman in a sharp, perfectly-cut black pantsuit, vice president of a subsidiary of Gazprom. To our right is a man in a navy jacket with a scarlet silk tie, owner of half the skyscraper properties in downtown Moscow. Stoytcho and I glance at each other. Earlier today, we ate at the cheapest Stolabaya we could find and it cost USD $6.00. Each person’s suit in this room has about the same price as a month in almost any country we’ve visited. How did we get here?

The connection

Ok, let’s back up. Before going on this whole round-the-world trip, I was getting my PhD at Yale University where I met Steve Blum, a Yale alumnus who visited Russia and loved it. Steve, who’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Association of Yale Alumni, was excited that we would be visiting Russia and put us in touch with someone he knew in Moscow. “This guy can show you around,” he told me cheerfully. We’ll call him “Guy” because I never know if what I write will get someone into trouble. So we exchange a couple emails with Guy as we’re traveling around the world, and a few days before we hit Moscow we make some final arrangements. He’s hosting a professor as well as us, so we’ll meet Guy and the professor at the State Tetryakov Gallery the day after we arrive. Reluctant to meet a Yale affiliate in stained zip-off hiking pants, we shop for some slightly nicer clothes the day before.

The art gallery

We meet Guy the next day in front of the gallery and he introduces us to John Mearshimer, professor at the University of Chicago. If you’ve ever studied political science, you probably know this name; John’s work is widely taught in international relations and conflict between nation-states. He’s published half a dozen books on the subject. He’s a big deal. Coming from biology, though, I had no idea who he was and took his hand with a blank polite smile.

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A bronze statue in the museum

After introductions, Guy leads us past the line at the museum entrance to a side door. A dour security guard stops us just inside and has an exchange with Guy, whose ID card and explanation placate him. We’re let through. “Do you work here and get to bring guests?” I ask, trying to find out more about our host. Guy responds, “No. I have special status because I paid for the restoration of several works here.” Oh, ok.

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Two visitors read the plaque in front of a painting at the gallery.

Our group wanders through the gallery, trailing Guy who stops frequently to explain the history or meaning of various works. Here is a painting depicting a famous battle, there is a painting showing the great schism in the Eastern Orthodox Church (pictured here), over there is a painting depicting a wedding of serfs. He stops at a painting of two men sitting at a desk with a woman in front of them, “In Russia, we say ‘buying and selling souls’ for the sale of serfs. Nobles would talk about how many souls they owned.”

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This painting depicts serf wedding arrangements being made between families.

Somewhere during the tour, we get invited to the Grand Strategy talks that Mearshimer is giving at the Hotel Kempinski every night this week. “Sure,” I reply, “That sounds fun.” Maybe this is where all my fellow academic nerds will be.

The Grand Strategy

Stoytcho and I show up to the Hotel Kempinski and it very quickly becomes clear this isn’t an academic gathering. For one, everyone is in nicer suits than most academics probably own. These are businessmen and businesswomen, Russian oligarchs here to learn Grand Strategy for nation-states that they can apply to their businesses. They jot notes as John speaks about Grand Strategy in World War II, in the Cold War, and in the Middle East today. Between rounds of talks, they chat with each other over hors d’oeuvres and check their phones busily. They all also speak English, and we’re able to find some to conversations.

We come back almost every night that week for Grand Strategy talks. It’s interesting stuff and John’s a good speaker. Neither Stoytcho nor I have a political science background, but what John says about Grand Strategy and a nation-state’s desire for regional hegemony, to have certainty and control over resources, makes a certain amount of sense. The nation-state simply behaves like a living organism, maximizing its own success in the world, sometimes at a benefit to but often at a cost to other nation-states. In the end, I ask and answer a few questions at the seminar, and feel like I’ve got it. When I tell John, he recommends I read some of his books. I haven’t got the heart to tell him that one his books is the same price as an average day’s worth of food for the two of us.

Maybe when I start my career back in the States I’ll have some pocket change again for a book.

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For some photographic context, here’s the building we’re staying in tonight.

Buryat Dance Festival “Ekhor Night”

IMG_8602 Want to experience Ekhor Night and learn to dance Yohor for yourself? The 2018 festival will be July 14-15 at the Ulan-Ude Ethnographic Museum.

Our first week in Russia I caught the flu. We meant to leave for Lake Baikal a few days ago, but I won’t be strong enough for another day or two. In the meantime, one of our hosts at the hostel tells us about an upcoming Buryati Dance Festival at Ulan-Ude’s Ethnographic Museum. “You should go! It will be fun,” she tells us cheerfully. She helps us find the bus schedule to the place, and the day of the festival we find ourselves catching jam-packed minivan that serves the museum bus route. IMG_7842

The atmosphere is festive when we arrive at the museum grounds, where we pay 200 rubles per person (~4 USD) for entry. People are lined up to get food and kvas, to play games, or to take turns in bouncy houses.

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A small crowd sits in front of the stage, where performers dressed in traditional attire sing and dance. We watch for a few sets, though we don’t understand jokes when they’re made or the song lyrics—everything is in Buryat, not Russian. But it looks so much to me like what I’ve heard and seen at the University for Minorities in Chengdu, where students gather nightly to practice the dances of their ancestors, gathering in a circle and going through the steps, skips, and hand motions.

IMG_7895 As the sun sinks lower, we peel away from the stage to walk through the museum grounds, which are covered in dense pine forest and dotted with exemplary buildings from the nomadic tribes, the early peasants, and the first European settlers in Siberia. Four-sided wooden buildings lie within steps of rounded yurts. An Orthodox Chapel sits on the museum grounds, while in the forest you can find granite stones inscribed with teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a mix of east meets west, of fur skins wrapped around yurts for insulation and four-post brass bedframes with mattresses and sheets. IMG_7850

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After sunset, we return to the stage and find it surrounded by a huge crowd waiting for the real show to begin. The last of the performers complete their acts, followed by a hurried transition. Two young people take the stage, and they address the crowd in Russian and Buryat. They thank us for coming and admire how much the festival has grown in the few years it has been alive. They talk about the festival’s origins and its goal to keep the Buryati culture alive. Then they tell us all to spread out: it’s time for the real festival to begin. We’re going to learn Buryati dance.

IMG_8372 IMG_8446 The crowd ambles away from the stage, arranging itself in huge uneven circles and ellipses in the field. Stoytcho and I remain together, a miracle considering I can’t understand anything being said from the stage. But I don’t need to. Our two onstage hosts demonstrate every dance step along with the Russian- and Buryat-language instructions, and I watch them and the people around me for dance cues. Three steps, point right foot out and stomp, pull back, three more steps, repeat. Switch directions. Repeat. We kick up dust as we move, people shuffling and stumbling over the steps for a minute. IMG_8482 Then our hosts announce it’s time for the dance. We link pinkies with the people beside us and have at it, step step step stomp step step mistake correction catchup repeat. Our hosts pause us and add a new step: a run. We’re now a thread of people stepping, skipping, stomping, running mostly evenly and sometimes unevenly around our circle, mostly linked by our pinkies but occasionally losing connection, kicking up dust that floats up to fill our shoes and clothes and the air. IMG_8565 IMG_8523 We continue as a whirling flock of humans, practicing several different dances that start with simple steps and become more elaborate performances. Stoytcho and I gain some proficiency, able to time our movements with the crowd, though we’re exhausted and can feel grittiness in each breath. Our hosts on stage call a stop to our last dance and ask us to make concentric rings around piles of wood arranged nearby. A man with a torch enters our ring and touches it to the woodpile, creating a plume of fire as it lights and illuminates our faces. Dance volunteers take their position around the circle to guide us, waiting for the signal. This is the true test of our dance mettle. IMG_8613

Our hosts shout something and we’re off, starting, stepping, stomping, skipping, sprinting, and stopping, following the volunteers’ lead with linked arms and laughter.

Post of Posts

Hey friends!

Our journey around the world has nearly come full circle and now we turn our steps homeward. If you’re following along in posts you might be surprised since the previous post put us in Vietnam. But to travel, live, and write every day is a tall order and we long ago accepted the blog would always lag behind our footsteps. Now that we’re headed home to new lives, time to add to this blog will become scarce, but I don’t want to leave this project half-finished. So I’ve slimmed the number of remaining blog posts down to those with the most meaning to us. This isn’t easy because it means giving up perfectionism and completionism that rely on in life, the obsessions that carried me through college and my PhD. “It was all wonderful! I want to show you everything!” the voice in my headspace shouts. But time is limited and new projects beckon.

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Thousands of stories, only so much time.

Since this is an illustrative example of the universal problem of ‘more thing to do than time allows’, I’m sharing my thought process below on how I chose the remaining blog posts. I keep the titles of all future posts written in a word processor document, so I went through and asked myself whether each title had a story I had to write. Did it have something that need to share with you?

Most of the posts I erased were ones meant to make the blog a complete timeline of our travels. I cleared out most of the posts detailing our transitions between cities or countries because you can figure out when we’ve gone somewhere new—we’re a travel blog. I also found a lot of posts that were simply photos of a city followed by an article about something specific in the city; I’ve combined these posts into one. And some things were just unmemorable. If I looked at the title of a post and couldn’t immediately recall what it was about, out it goes.

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The post ‘to-write’ list, before and after. Double-dashes mark breaks between countries.

The end result is that I’ve more than halved the number of posts left, from 200 to around 90. I’d estimate that this will save me about 40% of my writing time because many of the posts I removed from the ‘to-write’ list were short and easy and the remaining posts are more in-depth. But they all have something I want to tell you about our travels, stories from our journey around the world.