On birthdays and a journey of 33,000 miles

Two lives in 70 liters

It’s been 255 days since we strapped shut our bags, piled into my dad’s car, and drove down the 5 to Lindbergh Field. We’ve traveled 33,000 miles by plane and car, boat and train, jeepney and kayak, tuktuk and horse-drawn carriage. We’ve dropped our packs and made our beds in 49 cities. Knocked back pints in 23 countries. Traversed 3 continents and crossed the Atlantic. We’ll add 2 more continents and another ocean in one month’s time.

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I’ve reunited with family I haven’t seen in over twenty years in Manila and New York City. Met family I never knew I had in Chicago and London. In Saigon, I met a nephew who wasn’t born when I last saw his dad five years ago.

It’s been a rare thing to spend an entire week in the same city. We’ve learned and forgotten the words for hello and thank you in ten languages. It all blurs together when you’re carrying your entire life in the 36 liters on your back.

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Some nights we’ve crashed in the living rooms of friends and family. Other nights we’ve leased a slice of time in another person’s home, making eggs for breakfast and pork chops at night. Three weeks ago, we slept in a bungalow with wooden slats that barely touched and a dozen mosquitoes for roommates.

And other nights we felt like frauds, or the double-lived protagonists of a convoluted Shakespearean tale. By some grand sleight-of-hand misdirection, we’ve checked into 5-star hotels from Paris to Hong Kong to Langkawi. We’ve enjoyed drinks 31 stories above Tsim Sha Tsui while the world’s largest light show strummed over the harbor. We’ve sipped wine across the street from the Louvre and overlooking the Bangkok skyline. We’ve attended cocktail hours with millionaires and dinners with people earning less than ten dollars a day.

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On some days, we feel the call of the entire world. It’s eager to meet us.

On other days, we feel the blades of ten thousand steps in the arch of our feet. Our shoulders pinch back from countless hours waiting in bus terminals and airports with only our Deuter and Osprey for company. Suddenly it’s Thanksgiving Day in Helsinki and we’re up at 4am watching our family carve the turkey through a 13-inch screen too small to crawl through. Later we’ll wander the streets in search of anything turkey or cranberry and settle for some chocolate bars and reindeer meatballs.

We miss the Philippines. We spent six weeks there. I’d only been once before, when I was six, but there I found family and the familiar in equal measure. It’s a second home because we have aunts and uncles who want to take care of us there. It was great for our hearts and terrible for our waistlines. I think I put on 3 kilos. Eight and a half months out of the US and it’s more natural to think in metric.

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Some friends met us in Hong Kong and Macau. We wandered through the world’s largest gambling city together. We lost each other for a while in the hustle of it all one Sunday. On another day, we walk ten miles, looping from our flat to the Morning Trail, past tree and vine, through the Dragon’s Back and finally the Peak. We’re awarded at the top with a shopping mall, Christmas decorations, and fried noodles. On the way back, we swing through some monkey bars and relax at a craft bar called The Globe. Because what else would it be called?

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My mom flies to Manila to meet us for a month. We spend a whirlwind week together in Japan, crossing from Osaka to Kyoto and back. Somehow we manage to stumble our way through the subway and train systems on my broken Japanese. We visit the Golden Temple and the feudal castle of Osaka. We eat とんかつ curry and sushi by the docks. My mother lights prayer incense and buys wooden tags to bring home – blank slates for wishes yet unwritten.

We take special care one day to find a street I remember from six years ago. I sought it out because it was called the most beautiful street in Asia. The sakura trees are bare in the winter, but our efforts are rewarded with the sight of a crane wading in the water. It reminds me of the swans drifting down the canals in Bruges and the pelican we saw picking through the bacchanal’s remnants during the Amsterdam dawn.

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We flash back to Manila for what seems like a heartbeat, then spend another month in Japan. In two weeks we cross from Tokyo to Yakushima, from central Japan to the southern tip in the loping strides of the shinkansen bullet train. We get rained in on the island that inspired Miyazaki and scramble to find a place to sleep. We snap pictures next to the Statue of Liberty in Odaiba.

We spend Valentine’s Day in Kobe and enjoy teppanyaki steak at the most famous steak city in the world. The meal ranks as one of the best of my whole life – a set that now includes truffles in Croatia, sushi in Paris, döner in Zurich, and barbecue in Harlem. Greatness arrives in places both expected and surprising.

But yesterday I craved carne asada fries from Cotixan in Mira Mesa.

My father flies out to meet us in Hanoi and we spend a month exploring Vietnam from north to south. We walk along an old lake where an ancient king tossed his blade into the waters and received a finer one in return. In Hoi An, we watch people float candles out over the water and are custom-fitted for suits and shoes. In Halong Bay, we cruise past half-submerged mountain peaks and kayak over waters choked with dead fish. In Ninh Binh, an old man paddles us up the Tam Coc, using bare feet to guide the oars. In Saigon, my dad searches for traces of his family and home and past, and finds his memories wiped clean by forty years of reconstruction.

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My cousin Viet runs an apartment building there. His mother died of brain cancer shortly after arriving in America. If she’d lived, then Viet would have grown up with me in California. I meet his wife and son for the first time at their home in Saigon.

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Since my father left us, we’ve seen the sunrise over Angkor Wat and enjoyed drinks by the Nam Kham River in Luang Prabang. We’ve sought out the only apsara in Angkor Wat to show her teeth as she smiles and stared into the tableau of the Shiva unmaking the world. And throughout it all, we’ve felt a bit of exhaustion creep into us. Entropy will take us, too, in the end.

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I’m turning 30 today. I don’t know if we’ll do anything special. We’re staying at the Westin Langkawi, on an island in Malaysia that many would consider a piece of paradise. In the evening, we’ll enjoy cocktails overlooking the water. First round’s on the house.

At the end of the week, we’ll be back in Kuala Lumpur. The week after will be Australia. Soon enough, South America. I’m excited for the things we’ll do. Oh, the places we’ll go. But today, I miss family and friends most of all. And it’s comforting to know that the next eleven weeks are the last leg of our long and roundabout journey home.

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