The Return Flight


Today, after 375 days of travel across 5 continents, I’m headed back to the U.S. I pack the remaining things that Stoytcho didn’t take with him last week, then it’s off to the Berlin airport. Wow Air had the cheapest flight I could find, so I have a 4 hour layover in Reykjavik before flying on to Boston.


I board the first plane in Berlin and fly through overcast skies without incident, spending most of the time thinking about apartment hunting and what I’m coming back to. It has been a tumultuous year in the U.S., exhausting to watch from afar, but likely even more exhausting for those living in the States. I don’t exactly know what I’m coming back to, and though I have a job waiting for me, part of me does not wish to return. It’s easier to not go back to the problems. But running from the problems won’t solve anything, and even worse, it leaves behind those who can’t leave.


I land in Reykjavik just in time for the winter afternoon sunset and spend most of my layover working on blog posts, wandering through the duty free shop, and staring out at the snowy, golden landscape. I am grateful for the warmth of the airport as I board the next plane and experience a brief blast of icy air.

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The dusk flight from Iceland to Boston is the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced. The jagged rocks of Iceland’s coast interlace with the dark sea and wisps of hanging mist. Above the clouds the sun dyes everything a golden orange with purple shadows.



I drift in and out of sleep and wake to the captain making a PA announcement: we’re passing over Greenland. Below us, a mountainous landscape cloaked in purple and white stretches out endlessly. The winter extends the Greenland landmass with icebergs in the sea.



Though we are chasing the sun, it outruns us and eventually the plane slips into darkness. I sleep a bit more, and wake to a jolt and the announcement that we’re coming in for landing. Below and ahead, thousands of rainbow lights twinkle on the horizon: the Boston harbor at night.



As we come in for landing the dots become brilliant streaks of light out the window, and then we’re at a standstill, back on U.S. soil with all of its fear and hope for the future. I spent the better part of a decade planning and saving for this trip. Now it’s time to move on. And while our round-the-world trip is over, the journey is not. It will continue, always, in every person we meet and inspire to take their own first steps away from the comfort of home.

Tokyo ->Shanghai->Beijing->Ulan Ude

Today we’ll be doing a marathon of traveling, from Tokyo to Shanghai and then Beijing, with an overnight layover and a flight the next morning to Ulan-Ude in Siberia, Russia. It’s going to be a rough trip. But on the bright side, this flight itinerary wouldn’t even be possible fifty years ago.

We wait for our next flight at Shanghai’s Pudong Airport.

We board a China Eastern Airlines plane at Narita Airport and make our first stop in Shanghai. Technically, we’re still on the same ‘flight’ on to Beijing, but we’re all forced off the plane to go through customs because we’re coming from another country. The airline slaps bright blue stickers on us as we leave. The stickers have a string of numbers and letters codifying our flight written on them, followed by “Beijing” in both Chinese and English. I turn around and whisper to Stoytcho: “This is so we don’t get lost.” We weave through long lines at immigrations, then pick up our luggage and head to a customs that fifty years ago would not have been, with China just emerging from the throes of the Cultural Revolution.

After customs and immigration, we’re shepherded to our next gate and onto our flight by way of buses around the airport and across the tarmac. They’re crowded affairs, crammed Chinese and foreigners of all ages. A few are older Chinese ladies, who fifty years ago probably never guessed they would board a plane.

Looking out the window of our plane at the airport.

One flight later we’re in Beijing for our overnight stay, where we try to find food and a place to sleep for the night. After deeming the airport hotel too expensive, we hunt around for a quiet stretch to lie down. We want to get as much sleep as we can to be prepared for tomorrow’s flight to Ulan-Ude. We’re not sure how Russia is going to be, so we want to be awake and have our wits about us. But it can’t be that bad. Fifty years ago, with Leonid Brezhnev leading the Soviet Union, we almost certainly wouldn’t be welcome.

We bed down on a line of chairs with no armrests, curling up and preparing for sleep. In the row of chairs on the other side, two guys are doing the same. One offers us a cookie and we whittle the time away with talk. The two are brothers from Iran, doing something with oil technology. They’re returning home. Because it’s my dream to one day visit Iran, I ask what the country is like and where we should go. They tell me about the ancient cities and rugged mountains and thick jungle. They ask about the United States, and what it’s like there, and I tell them about the gleaming cities and rugged mountain and towering redwood forests. We swap emails. “You should come visit us!” one of the guys tells us, and I shrug and reply, “Maybe one day. It’s almost impossible for us to visit Iran.” Without thinking I add “You should come visit us, though!” The guys laugh, “It’s impossible for to visit the U.S.” Oh right, of course.

Our bed for the night at Beijing’s Capital International Airport, where travelers from around the world can meet and converse.

Today, I can’t visit the country of these two guys that I’m conversing with at an airport. But fifty years ago, the Shah ruled Iran and U.S. citizens could visit Iran mostly unfettered. Fifty years ago, the Cold War was at its height and both Russia and China were off-limits. Fifty years ago, no one had ever landed on the moon. Now, we’re suddenly in possession of unimaginable technologies and we’re bedding down at an airport in China and tomorrow we fly to Russia. And as I stare down at their email address written on my phone, I think about how we now send emails from devices containing more computing power than even the most powerful computers fifty years ago. Who knows what changes another fifty years will bring?

An air traffic employee on the tarmac at Pudong Airport, which didn’t exist fifty years ago.

Off to Da Nang!

We line up to march onto the tarmac at Da Lat Airport.

It’s time to head on to our next city, Da Nang. While a lot of backpackers attempt to bus or train around Vietnam, we’ve found it’s insanely cheap to fly. Our average flight per person flight cost is $100 USD, and this flight from Da Lat to Da Nang cost us $121 per person. Sure, the bus from Da Lat to Da Nang can be found through a travel agent at $11 per person, there are some horror stories out there and you have to go through Nha Trang, which we’ve heard from fellow travelers is one of the seediest, unpleasant places they’ve ever visited. So yeah, we’re not sad that we’re skipping the on-the-ground travel in this case.

Walking the tarmac! Off to Da Nang, now.

Looking for flights? Your best bet is to check Jetstar, which had a ton of deals while we were there. Air Vietnam also sometimes has deals to compete with Jetstar.

This advert was just so weird, so it’s here. You’re welcome!

Not-so-smooth entry into New Zealand

New Zealand got off to a pretty rocky start for us. We arrived exhausted from our travels, and we hit our first snag at immigration. We figured we’d rent a car and drive around the country’s North Island for a couple of weeks, then head on to Australia, but the last few days in Chile were so hectic that we hadn’t yet been able to fully plan it.

Our mistake was mentioning that to the immigration agent upon entry. She asked what we were going to see and misunderstanding it for polite banter, we answered that we weren’t sure yet. She paused, and then asked what we were doing here then. “We’re here to visit New Zealand,” I replied. “And you don’t have your trip planned?” she asked with suspicion. I realized she was evaluating us as visa overstay risk, and I wanted to respond with “Look, I’m sure your country is nice, but we really don’t want to be here for more than a couple of weeks, lest I go insane from an overdose of pastoral scenery.”

But you don’t say that to an immigration agent. Instead I told her with an exhausted sigh, “Look, we have a rough plan. We’re going to rent a car and drive around the North Island for two or three weeks. Then we’re going on to Australia. Did you want me to write out our rough itinerary?” “No, it’s fine,” she said. She stamped our passports and handed them back. “Most people arrive with a more detailed itinerary,” she added. Ouch.*

Eager to put the immigration agent behind us, we moved on to customs where we stood in line to declare that we had a tent. Most countries in the world take customs and introduction of invasive species seriously, but New Zealand takes this stuff very seriously. If you’ve got a tent or camping equipment that may have dirt on it, they ask that you declare it at customs so they can perform an examination and cleaning. When we got to the front, we opened our bag and pulled out or camping equipment, which all passed inspection as dirt-free. Our tent was the only thing that needed cleaning.

The customs agent took our tent, tagged it, and handed us a paper. “Go through the exit, then wait at the window outside. We’ll call the number on your tag when we’re done cleaning it.” That seemed super nice of them, and although we knew it was in New Zealand’s best interests to do these cleanings, I also appreciated it. “Wow, it’s so nice you give free tent cleanings,” I said cheerfully, “Thank you.” The agent didn’t smile or look up. “But it’s not free. It’s us taxpayers that pay for it, but really we should be charging you,” he replied. I didn’t try to make conversation again after that.

Everyone else at the airport following these interactions was absolutely lovely. A whole team of airport employees, including a couple of off-duty customs agents, helped us find some important medical documents we forgot while moving through customs. The young Maori guy who sold us bus tickets to get to the city had a warm smile and a great sense of humor. And our bus driver was the sweetest guy, making sure everyone got off at the stop they needed. But it’s hard to forget first impressions, and after all of the hype around New Zealand as one of the friendliest places on Earth, it was a surprise to find that not everyone here is friendly after all.


At least they have Crunchie bars here. P.S. Stoytcho had never had a crunchie bar before. 


* I have since found a much easier way to handle immigration agents, whose primary goals are to determine if you’re a threat to their country or a visa overstay risk: tell them you’re on a trip around the world, and list a few countries you’ve been to and where you’ll go next. This gives them both the reason you’re visiting their country and confirmation that you’ll be leaving for a subsequent destination (assumedly before your visa expires). They’re also usually tickled by the idea of meeting a round-the-world traveler, so it spices up their day.

Overnight Interim in Lima

Today’s post is brought to you by an overnight layover in Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport. We’ve left the Galapagos and our luxury cruise with more comfort and relaxation than we imagined, and it’s onward to Cusco.
Right now we’re trapped outside of security, waiting for clearance to enter which is given to people on domestic flights starting at 1:30 am. This airport is unique in that it was clearly designed to host far fewer flights than it currently does, and perhaps originally only domestic flights, because the airport layout makes no sense and it’s all one loopy terminal. Layer on the problem that all flights to Cusco are in the early morning and the airport staff have this odd insistence at cleaning the airport section by section at 11 pm, and you get a whole lot of nomadic overnighters with nowhere to go. Gaze upon us, the unwashed masses!


It’s now 7:11 am. We made it past security to get a few hours of sleep in the domestic airport lounge. Thank goodness we have Priority Pass membership through our magic credit card. Boarding in T minus 44 minutes, so see you in Cusco.