The Long Road Home

Like so many others, begins with a single step. A single, sandy step.

The azure waters hugging Ko Tao lie behind me now; longtail boats with red umbrellas float lazily in the shallows at my back. Tiny grains of sand are crushed against my skin, woven inextricably in my hair. Twelve thousand miles and six days from home, I begin the sweeping arc of return.

The first stretch is made on foot, pack laden on my back — by now a weight of second nature. For the rest, we will rely on unseen, pre-carved pathways. Taxis and boats, buses and planes: an almost impossible testament to our global connection. And ingenuity.

Day 1, 3:00 pm: Endless Ocean

Leaning against the outside wall of Raung Rang IX’s VIP cabin, my legs dangle over the endless sea. Water stretches to the edges of a clearly flat Earth, where it tumbles over the edge in a horizon-wide cascade. Occasionally a silver fish leaps from the frothy waters of our wake and once a flock of diving birds appears at our flank, diving for dinner. But mostly, it is just us. Us and water and sky. It is a moment I could rest in for a long time.

Day 2, 3:37 am: Cities Never Sleep

“Last stop, Bangkok,” our driver announces to the crowded bus, before disappearing outside to unload luggage on a dark and mostly deserted sidewalk. 3:37 am and we are tumbled unceremoniously onto an anonymous roadside, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes. Lucky for us, Khoa San Road is gracefully nearby and it never sleeps. At 3:30 in the morning, it’s just starting to look a little worse for the wear. Drunk tourists and their conquests stumble toward hotel rooms — and we do the same, hoping to find one willing to let us check in at 4:00 am. Miracle of miracles, we do, after an hour of wandering and looking and waiting. Twenty four final hours to party like it’s… Bangkok.

Day 4, 1:15 pm: Sightseeing in Santa Monica

The sands of Santa Monica beckon our travel-weary bones, providing promised solace from the airports and climate-controlled cabins of our many days. When we touch down at LAX, I am still in travel mode — finding first a map, then the $1 bus route to the coast, and we are on our way. The sun is lightly toasting the earth and air of southern CA, nothing like the ardent boil of South East Asia. People pock the long beach next to the Santa Monica pier with picnics and sand pails — or like us, with nothing at all.¬†We lay fully-clothed and face-down in the sand, crashing into a grateful beach-side sleep.

Our days of movement are filled with moments like these, an ever-changing set of circumstances drawing us closer to home. And then, finally and suddenly, there it is.

Day 6, 7:48 pm: There’s No Place Like Home

The Greyhound pulls into Syracuse as the sun is setting over Onondaga Lake and Alliance Bank stadium — so casually familiar. I stoop to pull Lug Bug from the side of the bus and throw it over my back. I walk outside and scan the sidewalk for a place to wait. Then a familiar shout and there they are: the people who will always be waiting, who I will always wait for – to embrace upon return. I could have traveled for weeks or months, or clicked my heels three times, there is no mistaking where I’ve ended up.

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And one for Singapore

As far as I can tell, Singapore seems fabled in the American lexicon for one thing, and one thing only: illegal chewing gum. I remember so clearly learning about this in elementary school and thinking, among a few other places, that this was about as far outside my world as I could imagine. A place where the government decides everything, even the availability of chewing gum! In Singapore, I thought, everything must be so clean, so precise.

And so, I stepped off the plane from Hanoi into what is routinely voted the world’s best airport and had a look for myself. First stop customs: on the counter was one basket of candies, for while you wait of course, and a tiny receptacle, for ‘candy wrappers only’. Where was I? The bathrooms had touch screens with surveys for you to rate your experience. Walking to the ground floor, we hopped on the spotless MRT subway system, and with the help of our free city map, easily found our stop three lines over. Then it was onto the street, where there was not a single piece of litter and everyone used the crosswalk. And so it was, the fabled land.

As one of the richest nations in the world, the city-state-country of Singapore rests far outside our meager traveler’s budget, making it a place that had to be seen but not one for lingering. Two nights and a day for Singapore. True to character, we spent most of our time at the city’s free, sprawling botanical gardens.

We just hopped off the MRT at the stop labeled Botanic Garden and turned right into a stunning expanse of greenery; every part of this sentence unimaginable in our last six weeks of travel. With flashy tourist attractions like the island-dwelling Universal Studios, the “world’s first angry birds cable car experience”, and many other self-proclaimed biggest and brightest and firsts, it would be easy (and confusing) to blow a week’s Malaysian travel budget on a single day in Singapore. Luckily, we are suckers for flora; wandering instead for hours in a lush urban landscape.

Throw in lunch in Little India, dinner at the People’s Park Complex of Chinatown (great for a $3 backpacker’s feast), and an unexpected visit to an MRT-attached shopping mall which boasted $15,000 furniture and $200 steak dinners for two, and we found our way through one day in Singapore:

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A day in Hanoi

I’m not one for big cities, generally avoiding them at all costs in favor of greener pastures. The irony is that I can go anywhere in the world and tell people I am from New York — and they will know exactly where I mean. What they won’t know is that I’ve only been to that big city they picture once in my 26 years of living. Not a city girl. Mostly…

When planning our (too) limited time in Vietnam, we slotted only two nights, one full day, for the country’s capital city, Hanoi. At one thousand years old (!) and boasting a population of 6.6 million, this is a city without an identity crisis. It knows exactly what it does best: thrum with the activity and aspirations of six million.

One day to wander the streets of Hanoi. Here are some of its pieces:

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