Southeast Asia 2017: Cliff Notes

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I’ve just gotten back to the United States after my month long adventure in Southeast Asia.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about my adventures more in-depth focusing on what I did, why I chose to do it, and what I took away from my trip.  But before I get to all that I thought it would be a good idea to answer the questions I get the most by giving a “Cliff Notes” version of my trip.  Below you’ll find a list of things and experiences that I enjoyed, why, and even a few pictures to give context.

Enjoy!

My Southeast Asia Favorite:

PlaceKoh Tao, Thailand

No explanation needed.

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A view worth the climb

City Chaing Mai, Thailand (though Seminyak Bali is a close second)

Chaing Mai is the type of place you go to in order to really absorb the Thai culture.   It’s over a 100,000 people but it feels a quarter of that size. It’s not known for clubs and partying but is does have amazing cooking classes, elephant sanctuaries, and national parks.  It would be my first choice if I had 12 months to spend in Thailand and could only stay in once city.  It’s a great place to really begin to understand Thailand, the customs, and the culture.

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Patel and her boys land in Chaing Mai


CountryVietnam.

 It’s what I imagine Thailand was 20 years ago before it became so popular with travelers.  Food is delicious, things are cheap, and locals are kind.  Hoi An, Sapa, Halong Bay, Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, and Hanoi are all incredible in their own right and completely different allowing for you to get a real feel for the culture and beauty without having to go too far.

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Vietnam has a habit of making you feel like you’re on top of the world

SnackJ-Bay from Nula Bowl in Seminyak, Bali

What can I say? It’s healthy and delicious.

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Seriously delicious

Drink Homemade Rice Wine in Vietnam

“Mot, hai, ba, YO!!”

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When you’re tour guide is pouring you shots you don’t ask questions

Lost Item– Silk Painting from Vietnam

Though I lost 3 pairs of sandals, my cell phone, a pair of vans, and my Ray Bans, it’s misplacing the silk artwork I bought on our way to Halong Bay that I’m still not quite over.

Restaurant-Bite Delight (Tapas Style Restaurant) Koh Phangan Thailand

Quaint. Intimate (holds maybe 15 people). Amazing food to share and incredible sangria.  It’s a great place to spend time eating, laughing, and just being with the people you care about. Carlos (the owner) will make you feel like family and you won’t want to leave.

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It’s even more adorable on the inside

DayElephant Sanctuary and Bamboo Rafting outside Chaing Mai, Thailand

After waking up at sunrise and riding in the back of a covered pick-up for over an hour into the jungle of Nothern Thailand we arrived at the Elephant Sanctuary.  We started by feeding the 3 elephants, then rolled around in the mud with them, before following them to the river to clean both the elephants and ourselves.  After we cleaned up, we hiked to a secluded lagoon with a waterfall.  After swimming and eating, we walked through the village learning more about the community as a whole which was really humbling. Finally, we arrived at a river and climbed on rafts made of bamboo; rafting down the river controlling the raft with our bamboo sticks trying our best not to fall off (emphasis on trying).  Hard to imagine a better Monday than that.

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Never had more fun getting dirty

NightHalong Bay River Cruise

Honestly, this was one of the hardest questions to answer.  There are plenty of nights that were unforgettable, but my favorite was the night we spent on a houseboat in Halong Bay.  We’d chosen to avoid the cheap, partying, backpackers houseboat because we wanted time to relax.  At least, that was the intention.  Somewhere along the way, that message got lost.  The next thing I know Cam and I are taking tequilla shots with two 67-year-old ladies from Switerzland (S/O to Freeda) and orchestrating the most random and diverse game of Kings Cup I’ve ever played in my life.  Follow that up by trying to squid fish on the back of the boat with Nick and Zoja and you have a night you’ll always remember.

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My one-night boat bar tab.

Activity– Surfing

I love the ocean more than most people.  I’m scuba certified, have worked on a cruise ship, and dream of a living by the beach.  However, with all that I’d still never learned to surf.  But you know what they say, when in Bali…

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Bali seemed like a good place to learn

ExperienceWhite Water Rafting in Ubud, Bali

Let’s be real.  Anything that is a water activity with beautiful Balinese scenery that gets my adrenaline pumping AND has dedicated pit stops for beers was always going to be my one of my favorite things.  It wasn’t even close.  I don’t regret getting out and swimming in the rapids (though once was enough) but I do wish I’d brought my camera.

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The Bintang Boyz.

Tour– Hoi An Cycling- Bike Tour

Biking around Hoi An was simply peaceful and enjoyable.  Hoi An is a really cool city that isn’t overflowing with tourists but has plenty of culture.  The surrounding areas are full of rice fields and farms with bike paths all around.  A few hours cycling through them will erase any worries you may have.  The bike tour also included rice wine, local food, and canoeing down the river at sunset.

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Rice fields and bike rides will cure all ills

Souvenir- Painting from Bali

The one thing I always bring back when I travel is something to hang on my walls.

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got to decorate with something, right?

TuneAlchemy- Willaris K

Can’t not move and groove to it.

Tour GuideRemmy with Hoi An Cycling

Remmy was super personable, loved to sing karaoke as we rode, poured us rice wine shots, and wore my Nebraska flag as a cape.  Needless to say, he won me over pretty quickly.

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Remmy loves Nebraska now

Place we stayedVilla Allamanda, Seminyak Bali

It’d be silly to go to Bali and not stay in a villa…

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Selfie: The Boys and the water buffalo

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Nailed It.

Best of Southeast Asia:

Sunset: Railay Beach, Thailand 

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Not all sunsets are created equal

Best Scenery: Sapa Vietnam

If you would have told me that I’d choose a place in the mountains over a place near the ocean as the place with the best scenery before I left I’d have told you to lay off the rice wine.  But Sapa is incredible.  Located in Northeastern Vietnam near the China border it’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever had the pleasure of going.  The mountains, rolling rice fields, and abundance of trees make you feel as if you’re on another planet.

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Pictures don’t even do Sapa justice

Nightlife-  Bali.

Whether you want to go to a club, chill by the beach, or drink on a cliff overlooking the ocean- Bali has you covered.  As I like all three of those things it’s my easy choice.

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Single Fin on Sunday is a must

Best Street Food–  Vietnam.  

I could eat Pho and Banh Mi every day forever.

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Pho=Vietnam

Photo of Nick Sleeping

Nick has the “superpower” of being able to sleep anywhere.  It became a bit of a running joke with our group to exploit his power for our amusement.  Cam most of all.

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Kid would sleep through an earthquake

Beach- Thong Nai Pan Noi Beach – Ko Phangan

I may be a bit biased on this because this was the first beach where I could go into the water after my stitches, but it was clean, off the beaten path, and exactly what we were looking for.

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Other:

Place I would liveBali

While I loved Ko Tao and Vietnam I never felt I could live in either place indefinitely. Both had drawbacks to the lifestyle I prefer to live.  Bali, however, hits it on the head. After spending a week there I completely understand why so many people go and never come back.  It has a great blend of Western and Eastern culture. It’s a fairly large island to the point where it doesn’t feel like you’re isolated on an island.  Add in the views, surfing, nightlife, people, the amount of outdoor activities and take my word that coming home was harder than I thought it was going to be.

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Most Pleasant Surprise-  Exploring the Paradise and Dark Cave Phong Nha National Park and Caves, Vietnam

I expected to explore the world’s largest cave- it was on the tour title after all.  However, two things really surprised me.  The first was the Dark Cave.  You’re exploring the cave in complete darkness aside from the headlamp on your head.  Every step is difficult to navigate as the cave is wet and muddy.  You get to slide down mudslides and at one point in the cave, you’re in a pool of water where you quite literally float.  The second thing that really made the experience incredible was the fact that the caves are right next to a lake.  After exploring the caves we spent the afternoon zip lining, kayaking, and swimming.

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Most Underrated Experience that no one talks about– Doing a Homestay in Sapa Vietnam

I had no idea what to expect in Sapa.  My friend Liam told me it was his favorite part of Vietnam and something I had to do.  Which means I had to convince the group to do the homestay and they were wary at best. Best decision I made on the trip.  We spent our 3 days hiking in the Himalayas Mountains.  Our nights around a table eating, drinking rice wine (and vodka), and spending time together.  The village doesn’t have any nightlife and barely has electricity.  It was a great 3 days of disconnecting from the world and enjoying the company of close friends.

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The Fellowship preparing for our journey

Once was enough– Floating Village, outside Seim Reap, Cambodia

We bussed an hour away from our hostel in Seim Reap to check out one of the floating villages of Cambodia.  While it was a cool experience I don’t see the need to go back and do it again.

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Scariest Moment– 4 A.M. ambulance ride in Phuket, Thailand 

Though crashing a scooter and almost drowning in Bali are up there.  The ambulance ride followed by spending over an hour in a Phuket Emergency Room at 4 am getting 15 stitches in my leg has to be the winner.  But what’s a trip without a few scars.

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Real friends come to the ER with you at 4 am.

Tourist Guilt “Had to”Angkor Wat, Seim Reap, Cambodia

Don’t get me wrong, it’s something everyone should see at least once in their life.   However, this was the only thing on the entire trip I felt obligated to see.  We went to Cambodia for 3 days literally just to make sure we saw Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.  Huge and humbling the Angkor Wat compound was completely worth it.  Though I’d be lying if I said I preferred Angkor Wat to Ta Prohm.

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Unique Experience- Asia Scenic Cooking Class,  Chaing Mai, Thailand

My traveling goal going forward is to bring something back from my travels that enhances my life.  Learning to cook something new fits the bill.  Apart from learning something new, the cooking class we took was an absolute blast.  Learning how to make authentic Thai food while in Thailand was definitely a unique experience.

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Spontaneous Decision- Bali Swing- Ubud, Bali

After we finished white water rafting I saw a sign saying “Bali Swing” this way,  I explained to the group that I’d seen something like it on Instagram (looked amazing) and since we were right there we should check it out.  With no background on if it was even the same thing, we headed straight there.  So glad we did.  Check out the video on Instagram.

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Ballin’ Out Moment- Getting custom suits tailored in Bali

Yeah, I’ve got a suit guy.

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Ballin’ out in Bali

Conversation- Seif explaining the Middle East to Nick (and myself)

One of my favorite things about traveling is getting to talk to people from outside the Midwest and outside of the United States.  Getting to hear their views on everything from life, to religion, and especially politics (American and World). My friend Seif was born in Egpyt and now lives in London.  After most of our friends went to bed in Sapa, he stayed up with Nick and I for hours explaining the different dynamics at play in that area of the world.  He answered question after question with complete honesty.  Not trying to make anyone good or bad just presented the facts as he knew them.  Anytime you can have a conversation with someone who has direct experience with something your best bet is to shut up, listen, and take it in.

Most Overrated- Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan, Thailand 

I enjoy it.  But this was as close to college spring break as we got on the trip.  I love Thai buckets and a good beach party as much as the next person, but to be honest I enjoyed the jungle party the night before more.  If you’re in Thailand it’s definitely something you should check out, but just expect PCB or South Padre in Asia with buckets.

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Reppin’ of Nebraska- Outside Hoi An, Vietnam

Water buffalo+Rice fields+Flag= Trifecta

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Random Discovery- LOVE sign- Koh Phangan, Thailand

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To keep up with my adventures follow me on Instagram Todds_Tales

Southeast Asia: A predeparture note on being ready…

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Today.  As in today, today.  As in right now.  

As I sit writing this on the plane from Kansas City to Los Angeles, it hit me full in the face, that the day has arrived.  Whether I’m ready or not, the time to feed my nomadic soul is here. I’m always amazed at how I can spend so much time counting down to something and then when it arrives be completely taken by surprise and unprepared.

This isn’t my first “big tip” nor will it be my last.  However, this trip is different for me.  I’ve spent the last couple of days really reflecting about my trip to Asia and why I feel so different about it.  

Usually, I can’t think about anything but the destination.

Usually, I’m getting ready to leave for months at a time.

Usually, I’m going alone.

But none of those “usuals” are true this time.  I’ve been so busy with work, redesigning my blog, and coordinating the trip I didn’t pay attention to how quickly the days were slipping by.  I’m pretty sure my friends and coworkers were more excited than I was- not fully understanding that my mind was on finishing everything I could before I left.  Some may even say that I wasn’t ready for this trip.

One of my many life rules is “have standards, not expectations”.  Since I first started traveling, people have asked me if I was ‘ready’ to go.  Which I’ve always found to be an absurd question.  It’s like asking someone “are you ready to have a baby” or “are you ready to get married’ or “are you ready to go away to college” you may think you are, but you can never be truly ready for anything in life that really matters.

Being ready implies you know what to expect and are prepared for it. That you have an idea of what’s waiting just around the bend, but that’s not what traveling is about and that’s sure as hell not what life’s about either.

The more I got the question the more I was reminded of René Descartes (the dude who said ‘I think therefore I am’).  Descartes was a philosopher and mathematician who had a theory about the human brain having a limit to what it can imagine and comprehend.  He’d tell someone to imagine an object with four sides (go ahead and image a thing with 4 sides).

Once they’d confirmed they could, he’d tell them to imagine a thing with a million sides (go ahead give it a try, I won’t judge you for failing).  Every single person would tell him they couldn’t do it.  

The predeparture part of traveling has always been like that to me.  Filled with a lack of expectations and readiness.  Afterall, how could I possibly be ready for something that I have never experienced?  That I can’t even comprehend?  We’re all limited by our experiences and until you go somewhere and do something there’s no way you can be ready for it.

I learned to approach my trips (and life) with that open mind and up for anything attitude.  It’s why ‘I don’t say no too much’.  That philosophy has led to some of the best moments of my life.  When you do something with an open mind, appreciate the little things, and don’t sweat the small stuff you’ll be amazed at the situations you find yourself in and the experiences you have.

All you can do is open yourself up to the new and exciting and that’s the reason so many people love traveling.  It forces us into situations we haven’t planned for and could have never imagined just a few days ago.  Traveling helps us to learn what we’re capable of by constantly keeping ourselves just a little uncomfortable.  Only through being challenged can we grow.

This trip is different from the ones I’ve taken before which means most of the experiences I’ve had before don’t really apply. I’ve been working instead of daydreaming about my destination.  I’m ‘only; going for a month and I’m leading a group of ten.  I’m even less prepared than usual.

So no.  I’m not ready.  But I’m going anyway.

The best way to keep up with my trip to Southeast Asia is to follow me on Instagram- Todds_Tales.

 

How To Travel: Travel Insurance

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This is the fifth post in my “How To Travel” series. Before you read about why you need Travel Insurance you may want to check out “How To Travel: An Introduction” by clicking here, ‘Utilizing Credit Cards‘, ‘Ways to Make Money Traveling’ and “A Packing List for Southeast Asia”

I know what you’re thinking.  Do you really need travel insurance?  I’ve traveled quite a bit and never purchased it before. In the past, I didn’t think it was necessary.  I told myself that nothing bad was going to happen and was lucky enough that it never did.  However, if something had happened I’d have been in big trouble.  Had I damaged my ear drum while scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef or ended up hospitalized from dehydration after Tomorrowland it would have been 100x worse if I would have had to worry about hospital bills on top of everything else.
So why did I decide to get travel insurance before my next trip to Southeast Asia?
There are a lot of reasons to get travel insurance.  But for me, the biggest reason was it covers me if I get hurt while on my trip or any other medical emergency.  I’m not always the most graceful person and I have a habit of doing things before thinking them all the way through.  If I hurt my ankle exploring the caves in Vietnam or trekking in Thailand I want to make sure I can get the best medical care available.  Knowing that I’m covered if the worst happens allows me to continue to say yes to as much as possible.
Other reasons to get travel insurance:

You need to cancel your trip

What happens if someone gets sick and can’t travel, a parent dies, you’re required to work, or your house floods?

If you have travel insurance, you’ll be able to recover your out-of-pocket expenses for these covered reasons and more.

You miss your connection

You’ve planned a cruise but you discover the connecting flight to get to the ship is delayed. With the missed connection it looks like you will miss your cruise departure. How will you catch up to the ship?

Because you have travel insurance, you can take another flight to catch the ship at the next port-of-call. You’ll also have assistance services to help you arrange and pay for those travel changes.

Your flight is canceled

After attending the family reunion, you arrive at the airport to return home and are told tornadoes have canceled all flights through Dallas. Who will help you find a new flight to return home?

With travel insurance, you’ll have the money to refund the expenses of a new return ticket or to stay in a comfortable hotel.

A hurricane damages your destination

You saved all year for a summer vacation to Aruba, but a hurricane destroys the hotel a week before you depart. Will you lose all the money you worked so hard to save?

With travel insurance protection for weather damage, you’ll be able to recover your pre-paid costs. Travel assistance services will also help you arrange a vacation at a new location – one the hurricane missed.

You get sick or injured on your trip

You and your friends have planned a hiking trip to climb Machu Picchu since college. After your first night in Lima, you wake with severe stomach pains and a high fever. You cannot start your hike. Instead, you need emergency medical care – and quick.

With travel medical coverage, you won’t be paying a huge medical bill. You’ll also have assistance services –  in your own language – to locate a suitable medical facility and arrange transportation.

Your baggage is delayed or lost

You finally land at your destination.  Unfortunately, the airline made a mistake and your baggage will be delayed. Luckily you’ve got a change of clothes, but what about your other clothes, shoes, toothpaste, and personal items?

With coverage for delayed bags, you can relax. The service hot-line will help you recover your bags. You’ll also be reimbursed for the essential items you need to start enjoying your trip.

Or, you are required to speak at a business conference in Las Vegas, but somewhere in transit, your baggage is lost. Your presentation is tomorrow, how will you get ready in time?

With coverage for luggage that is lost, stolen, or damaged, you’ll be reimbursed for new clothes and personal items. You’ll can even get reimbursed for a suitcase so you can take your new stuff home.

Your passport is lost

You are at a conference in London, and you realize you left your passport at a local restaurant.

With coverage for lost passports, you’ll have help expediting the process of replacing and paying for a new passport.

You need an emergency medical evacuation

You and your daughter have planned a summer tour of Mont-Blanc, but high in the mountains your daughter is overcome with dizziness and a dangerously high fever. She needs immediate medical attention. How will you get her to safety?

With medical evacuation coverage, you can arrange safe transportation to a medical facility. Medical evacuations typically cost tens of thousands of dollars, but with trip insurance you won’t break the bank.

Your travel company files bankruptcy

You’ve planned a two-week honeymoon cruise to Alaska, but a week before the trip you see on the news that your cruise is canceled due to financial default of the cruise company. How will you recover your money?

With trip insurance that covers financial default, you’ll be able to recoup your expenses. With the help of assistance services, you’ll be able to reschedule your cruise as well.

You need emergency assistance services

You and your parents have planned a trip to their home country, but on your way, the train is canceled for mechanical repairs. You don’t speak the language. Who can help you locate alternative transportation?

With travel insurance you’ll have emergency assistance services. The service agents will recover your non-refundable fees, then locate and pay for transportation to get you where you want to be.

I recommend getting yout Travel Insurance from World Nomad (that’s where I got mine).   World Nomads travel insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers, to cover your trip essentials. Even if you run out of travel insurance or leave without it, World Nomads can cover you. World Nomad helps you to travel smarter and safer.
In the end, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

How to Travel: What to Pack (A Packing List for Southeast Asia)

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One of the most overwhelming parts of traveling is packing. What do you need to bring on a trip across the world?  How much is too much?  What if you forget something? Packing for a long trip can be really stressful if you’ve never done it before.

When I tell people I love to pack they always look at me like I’m crazy.  I enjoy the challenge of packing.  It’s an exercise in thinking, planning, and minimalism which are three things I enjoy most.  How much do I really need to survive?  Do I own anything I can’t live without?  

One reason I love backpacking so much is because it helps me to declutter my life and remember how little “stuff” I need to be happy. 

Most people have a tendency to overpack.  They think about a billion different “what if’ scenarios and try to accommodate each one. It may seem obvious but keep in mind that when you’re backpacking you’re responsible for carry however much you bring on your back.  The more you bring the heavier the bag.  

As a fairly in shape and big guy ( 6’ 4’ 200 pounds), I have the luxury of being able to carry more weight without it exhausting me as quickly as it would others.  This allows for me to bring a few extra items that may not be a necessity for my trip but more of a luxury (hammock and camping blanket etc).  

Three things I always keep in mind when packing for any trip are:

1.Where am I going?

2.When am I going?

3. People live there.

Where Am I Going?

This first one is pretty obvious.  A trip to Iceland requires a different packing list than a trip to Bali.  When going somewhere it’s vital you take into consideration that country’s customs, temperature, and lifestyle.  Regardless of where you plan on going there are plenty of resources that explain what to expect and how to act.  Once you’ve done your research use the knowledge to make a list of what is appropriate and necessary to bring with you.  For example, tank tops, shorts, and sandals are not appropriate attire to wear when visiting temples in Southeast Asia which means you should bring pants and closed toes shoes.

When Am I Going?

Again this may seem obvious but do your research on weather patterns throughout the year.  When is winter?  What’s summer like?  A place like Vietnam has two different seasons: dry and wet.  Are you going in the dry season or should you be prepared for monsoons throughout your trip?  Does it get really cold at night when the sun goes down? The weather during your trip will have a big impact on what clothes you need to bring with you.

People Live There.

When people overpack it’s because they think they need to bring everything with them for every possible scenario.  They don’t seem to realize that people live there and function every single day.   It may not have the most recent style or your preferred brand of something but odds are if you forget something you can buy it while you’re gone.  Instead of over packing with stuff you “may” need, leave it at home. If you do need it, buy it abroad.  It will save you room and you’ll bring home some souvenirs with a story.

Okay, so what’s on my packing list for Southeast Asia?  I’ve split my list into different categories based on use of an item and where I store it.  Keep in mind, that when I’m not on a flight EVERYTHING (including my daypack and everything in it) can fit in my Dueter 65 L backpack to make for easy transportation.  You really don’t want multiple bags to carry and move when getting in and out of taxis, trains, tuk tuks, or ferries.

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In my Deuter Transit 65 Travel Pack

Tops:

Tank Tops- 5
T-Shirts- 6
Button down- 1
Cotopaxi Windbreaker
Pullover/ Quarter zip-1

Bottoms:

Shorts-4
Pants-1
Boardshorts-3
Underwear and compression shorts-7
Socks- 10

Shoes:

Sandals- 1 pair
Nike Running shoes- 1 pair
Vans- 1 pair

Hats:

Serengetee 5 Panel Globetrotter
Outdoor Research Sun Hat

Won’t Travel Without:

Double Camping Hammock
Cotopaxi Kusa Blanket
Microfiber Towel
Grid-It Organize
Eye Mask and Ear Plugs
Combo Lock
4 Combo Master Lock 653D
LED Headlamp
Hydration bladder (Daypack has hydration sleeve)
Selfie Stick (believe it or not it comes in handy when everyone wants to be in the picture)
Travel Power Strip
Portable Wireless speakerMosquito Repellent
Converter

Toiletries:

Toothbrush
Toothpaste
Comb
Floss
Glasses
Contacts
Contact solution

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In My Carry-On: the 
Cotopaxi Del Dia Daypack Daypack

Macbook Air and charger
Passport
Ray Ban Sunglasses
GoPro HERO4
Headphones
Charger
Power Bank
Kindle Fire
Notebook/Journal
Collapsible water bottle
Portable External Hard Drive
Canon PowerShot SX280

So there you have it, my packing list of clothes and accessories for a month in Southeast Asia.  During April 2017, my whole life will be packed into a 65L backpack and hauled on my back, trudging through the excitement Thailand, hiking the gorgeous countryside of Sapa, and hammocking on the beaches of the Island of the Gods.

One last thing note.  I plan on packing light and getting rid of a few items (if need be) to make sure I have room to bring back a few souvenirs from my trip.  I have a tradition to always bring back a piece of art to hang in my house after every trip.  I’m excited to see what I can find in Southeast Asia!

After my trip, I’ll come back and update the list to let you know what I could have left behind and if there was anything I wish I’d brought with me.

What items can you not travel without?

This is the fourth post in my “How To Travel” series. If you like what you read you may want to check out “How To Travel: An Introduction” by clicking here, ‘Utilizing Credit Cards‘, and ‘Ways to Make Money Traveling’

Every single product recommended on this page is something I personally use, and none are paid placements. Some of the above are affiliate links and I will earn a percentage of the sale if you purchase through them at no extra cost to you. This helps keep my site running – so thanks in advance for your support!

How To Travel: Utilizing Credit Cards

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This is the second post in my “How To Travel” series.  To read “How To Travel: An Introduction” click here.

After reading the title of this post you’re thinking ‘what do credit cards have to doing with traveling?”  That is a fair question as most don’t know to make the connection.  Credit card debt is a serious issue which is why there is so much negativity and fear out there about them.   But here’s the thing, when chosen properly and used wisely credit cards give you rewards points which come in very handy when traveling.

Like most people, I hate paying for things.  If I can find a way to do something and not pay for it I’m all about it. My biggest reason for not doing something is simply not wanting to spend the money. I’ll walk instead of Uber and I’ll cook instead of eating out. But at the end of the day most things in life aren’t free which means I’m constantly spending money.  Everyone has their preferred method of payment.  Some say cash is king.  Others prefer debit cards.  And I hear there’s still a subculture of people that actually write checks  (not making that up). What do each of these people have in common?  They’re completely missing out on the rewards.

A Quick Warning:
Before we get too far, let me say that the advice below only works if you are aware of your finances and responsible with your credit cards.  I treat mine like a debit card and pay each of them off at the end of every week.  Yes, I pay mine off weekly.  Which may seem OCD but it keeps me from ever living beyond my means.  The reason credit cards have gotten a bad reputation is because people think having one gives them an excuse to buy whatever the fuck they want.  It doesn’t.  It’s imperative for you to understand your budget and finances before you get a credit card.  If you decide to get one after reading this post don’t change your spending habits but simply enjoy the rewards.  You’re doing all of the work already (spending the money) you might as well get something out of it.

If used properly, credit cards can help you secure a free flight to anywhere in the world.  I booked my flight from Melbourne to LAX in May ($875) for free with my points.  Thank you Chase!

Once you’ve decided you’re responsible enough for a credit card (or two) what’s next?  You need to figure out which credit card is best for you based on your spending habits and your goals.

What you buy most and what you want to do with the rewards you earn will dictate which credit card is best for you. I only got a credit card to help me travel.  Which means I found the ones that help me do that best. To be honest, I was pretty pissed I didn’t get one in college to start earning points even sooner.  Bali would have been a nice graduation gift.  

There are a shit ton of credit cards out there, but only a few for people who love to travel and travel often.  Below is a list of the credit cards I have along with a few card highlights.

Barclay Arrival +

-2x Miles on all purchase

Earn 50,000 bonus miles as a sign up bonus (after spending $3,000 in 3 months)

Get 5% miles back when cashing your miles in for a trip

-No foreign transaction fees

-$89 fee (waived the first year)

Discover IT

-5% cash back in rotating categories each quarter (currently gas stations and wholesalers)

-1% cash back on all other purchase

-Matches your cash back total at the end of the first year

-0% APR on balance transfers

-FICO Credit Score on each statement

-No Fee

Chase Sapphire Preferred

-Earns 2x points on dining and travel, including expenses like food and grocery delivery services, tolls, Uber and more

-1 point on everything else

-1:1 Point Transfer to other airlines

-No Foreign transaction fees

-50,000 sign up bonus points (spend $4,000 in the first 3 months)

Chip and Signature Technology, which provides better security and wider acceptance when traveling overseas

-$95 annual fee (waived the first year)

Chase Freedom Unlimited

-1.5% cash back on everything

-$150 bonus after spending $500 in the first 3 months

-0% APR for 15 months from opening account

-No Fee

I know what you’re thinking, no, you don’t need 4 credit cards.  I have each of mine for a different reason and use them strategically to maximize the reward points.  But I’ll give you the same advice I give everyone when I first start talking credit card strategy.

Establish your goal and timeframe.

Get the Chase Sapphire Preferred.  

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For example, if your goal is to go to Prague next year the best thing you can do is get the Chase Sapphire Preferred. You then start working toward spending $4,000 in the first 3 months to get the 50,000 point bonus giving yourself a free flight to Prague.  It sounds like a lot of money, but if you actually examine your finances you’ll find it’s not hard to do.  If you use the Chase Sapphire Preferred for ALL of your spending those first 3 months you’ll have no problem reaching the required spend and cashing in on the rewards points.  If you’re worried that you won’t be able to spend $4,000 here are a few ways I’ve found to make it easier (and cheaper) to do:

-Whenever you go out with friends/family pick up the tab and have them pay you back via     Venmo, Square, cash, etc
-Put all your bills/utilities on your credit card (cell phone, health care, gas/water etc)
-Plan a trip and put all the expenses on your Chase credit card
-Wait to make a ‘big purchase’ until after you get your card (furniture, car, etc)

You’ll get double the points on anything travel (uber, taxi, RV rental, trains, flights, etc) and restaurant (anything food related not counting grocery stores).

If you travel for work this card is perfect for you.  Your company will take care of the required spend for you.  A lot of my friends have the Southwest credit card which is fucking stupid.  Yes, you get 2x the points when booking a Southwest flight, but guess what, you get the same amount of rewards points booking a Southwest flight using your Chase Sapphire Preferred.  You can transfer points to basically any airline 1:1 which means if you want to switch between Southwest, Delta, or American you can.  You’re not stuck with one airline if they don’t have your flight or a different airline has it cheaper.  You simply transfer your Chase rewards points to whatever airline rewards program you prefer allowing yourself more options.

Quick Note on Strategy:  I recently got the Barclay Arrival + credit card because I wanted to have at least 50,000 points for next year since my trip to Asia used all my Chase points.  I’ve set up my system so I can rotate ‘main’ cards each year racking up the points and alternate the spending of my points.  This way I always have enough for a free international flight.  For example, I have 63,374 Barclay points that I’ll use next year when I go on my next trip and in the meantime I’ll start saving up Chase points again so in 2 years I can use those.  

I had to spend $3,000 in the first 3 months but I didn’t have any big purchases coming up and didn’t want to buy something just to meet the required spend (you should not change your spending habits to meet the required spend).  I looked at my finances and realized that I could pay my rent on my credit card.  I usually Venmo my landlord at the start of each month.  $450 from my bank account to his.  For a 3% fee I could charge my credit card.  I wasn’t wild about adding $13 to my rent each month but it meant instead of spending $3,000 in 3 months all I had to spend was $1,611 which is all too easy to do.  Every time you spend money you have to learn to think “this sucks, but how can I get rewarded for this.”  

Pro Tip:

I strongly suggest not opening more than 1 card at once to start with.  It’s best to open one card at a time and dedicate your spending on that card until you’ve reached the amount needed for the sign-up bonus.  

Last quick note on the Chase Sapphire Preferred, it’s impossible to not feel like a baller when using this card.  It’s sleek, enabled with chip security, but more importantly it’s heavier than any card I’ve ever held.  When I use my card (especially abroad) and the cashier takes it from me they look at me with a ‘who is this guy and how can he afford to use this card’ look which I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy just a little.

For more information about the Chase Sapphire Preferred check out The Points Guy, 5 Additional Benefits, and NerdWallet

OK, you’ve met the required spend for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.  What’s next?

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Get the Chase Freedom Unlimited.

There’s nothing fancy about the Chase Freedom Unlimited nevertheless it’s effective.  While the Sapphire Preferred is boom or bust (2% or 1% cash back) the Freedom Unlimited does nothing but consistently get on base with its 1.5% cash back on every purchase. I won’t go into too much detail but if you’d like more information check out NerdWallet and The Points Guy.  

While you should still use your Chase Sapphire Preferred card on any travel or dining purchase ($500 in 3 months is super easy to do) everything else should be put on your Freedom Unlimited card to maximize your rewards earning.

The best thing about having these two cards? You can combine the points you’ve earned on each card into one account.  

Since the Chase Sapphire Preferred is an “elite” tier Chase card you’re allowed to pair it with a lower tier card.  Meaning everything you buy will get 1.5% or 2% cash back.  It makes earning rewards points a lot easier when you can alternate these 2 cards to maximize your points earned by combining them.

The Freedom Unlimited sign up bonus is 15,000 points ($150) if you spend $500 in the first 3 months.  For those who aren’t great at math, that’s 65,000 Chase points just by getting these 2 cards and meeting the spending requirements.  You’d be hard pressed to find a place in the world you can’t get to with 65,000 points.  If you’re not interested in using your points to travel you can also get cash back, gift cards, etc.  65,000 points is equal to $650 in cash back rewards to use however you want.

Points on Points on Points:
Chase gives out bonuses for Referring A Friend. 10,000 points for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and 5,000 points for the Chase Freedom Unlimited.  If you learned anything from this post and are interested in being my ‘referred friend’ leave your name and email below!

Even if you decide the two Chase cards aren’t for you I hope this post has helped you understand how rewarding using a credit card can be.  Spending money is a lot more enjoyable when you’re getting some of it back and putting it toward your next adventure.

Few things beat exploring the world for free.

 

How To Travel: An Introduction

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I’ve spent most of my free time over the past few months researching the other side of the world, planning obscure adventures, booking flights, ferries, buses, tuk tuks, AirBnbs, and hostels.  But what else can I expect when I decide to take a month long trip to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Bali. (Sidenote, if anyone has any advice on where to go or what to see I’m all ears as you can never have enough information).

I’ve known about this trip for awhile.  I gave Adam, my boss, a 15 month heads up telling him I was going to disappear in April of 2017 to “feed my soul.”  Afterall, I haven’t left the United States in over a year and a part of me has died in my self-induced captivity.  

Those who live to travel will understand exactly what I mean.  Don’t get me wrong, I needed a year to refocus and there are worse places to do that than America (Pre-Trump anyway). But for someone who loves exploring, thrives on being uncomfortable, and relishes unpredictability it’s far past time for my next international adventure.

Over the last few months I’ve learned a few things about myself. The first is I’m a pretty good planner (you’re welcome Zoran, Priya, Nick, Jared, Cam, Zoja, and Seif).  The second is I know quite a bit about how to travel (thank you three years of being a vagabond).  The third is I’ve got a big mouth (less of a realization than it may seem).

Let me clarify.  I’m an easily excitable and overly welcoming person.  I’ve always thought ‘the more the merrier’ is a swell life philosophy.  Which may seem odd given my lack of patience and hatred of babysitting others. Though I see the latter more as an empowerment tool to those in question.  

When people ask about my upcoming trip and I enthusiastically tell them about the different countries I’m going to and what I have planned for each.  I also have a habit of ending the conversation with “you should totally come.”  

My only defense is that I’m going to SE Asia for an entire month and didn’t think people would actually take me up on my offer.

Well, the joke is on me.

What started as a reunion of sorts with my friend Zoran has become a month long trip for six people and multi-week trip for nine.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to bring people together.   But making sure everyone’s booked everything properly makes for a lot more planning, coordinating, and stress  Since Asia is so big and now there are so many of us it makes my normal ‘show up and see what happens’ approach impossible.

Each time I told Zoran someone else was going to join us he’d look at me a little taken aback.  He’s the one who’s always inviting more and more people on our adventures while I complain how they’re only going to slow us down.  So it was completely justified when he asked me what the hell I was doing.  I admitted to him that we’ll be making a sacrifice of sorts, but we’re opening up a whole new world to our friends.  From personal experience, I know how one adventure can completely change someone’s life.  That opportunity is something I have to encourage regardless of the personal ‘sacrifice’.

Our group has a range of travel experience but this will be Nick’s (my best friend from high school) first trip abroad.  I can’t express how excited I am for him to have his first international adventure with us in Asia. To have the courage to say ‘fuck it, I’m in’ and go away for a month for his first trip is impressive.  He has no idea what’s about to happen -how traveling changes your life and broadens your perspective.  There’s something magical about the first time you truly leave a place.  To his credit, he’s excitedly done everything asked of him but hasn’t been able to contribute much to the group.

Nick has zero travel knowledge, he’s actually getting his passport so he can go on our trip. There’s nothing wrong with that, as they say, better late than never.  Though we grew up together, he and I have had completely different experiences since graduating high school.  He was responsible and hardworking while I was well, let’s be nice and call it adventurous.  However, him joining our trip made me realize how much travel information I’ve acquired over the past few years.  Details about travel hacking, flying, packing, working on abroad, visas, budgeting, useful apps, and handy websites I completely took for granted before guiding Nick through the process of planning a big trip.

Nick reminded me that most people don’t plan half year or even month long trips.  For the majority of people, it’s a week here or a few days there.  They go to one city or country, call it good, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Traveling anywhere is better than traveling nowhere.

Planning a trip and traveling abroad can be completely overwhelming if you’ve never done it.

Where do even you start?  

How do you make sure you pick the right place, flights, and places to say?  Is there a way to not spend your entire life savings on one trip?  Is it best to go alone or with friends? Do you need to get vaccinated? Do you need a visa?  Do you need travel insurance? What should you bring with you? Is it safe? Do you need a backpack? Will you even want to come back?

The questions go on and on.  The honest truth is you can’t know the best way to do something until you’ve done it.  Traveling is no different.  A lot of it is trial and error.  Which is why I’m choosing to share my experiences in this “How To Travel” series.  I want to save you time and energy from scouring the internet, to stop you from making a poor decision, and to point out things you’ve never considered because you don’t know what you don’t know.

I understand everyone has different preferences especially. For example, I prefer hostels to AirBnbs, street food to  5* restaurants, and will walk 5 miles if it means I don’t have to pay for an Uber, but I understand that not everyone is the same way.  

My goal isn’t to tell you how to travel; that’s something you’ll discover for yourself. It’s to open a whole new way of thinking to you so the next time you go somewhere you’ll be as prepared as you can be.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll publish different blogs in my new ‘How To Travel’ series.  A lot of the information will be coming from me directly, but also from others who have traveled even more miles than I have.  If you have any questions or topics you’d like to see discussed comment below or email me at ofwhiskeyandword at gmail dot com

Stay Tuned.

On Free Spirits…

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“A lot won’t understand you and that’s ok.”
Nikki Rowe

Until recently I’d never once thought of myself as a “free spirit”.  To me, the free spirits were the people I met on the cruise ship, the people backpacking around the world for years at a time, the people walking around Burning Man completely naked.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those people or with being a free spirit.  It was just never a label I would have given to myself.  I’d say I plan too much to be a free spirit.  For awhile I thought those two things were mutually exclusive.  But that’s not the case.  Being a free spirit doesn’t mean you don’t make plans it means you don’t let anything stand in the way of your plans.

I realized now a free spirit is just the name for someone who isn’t afraid to do their own thing.  They don’t worry about asking for permission because they know they’re going to do it anyway.  They don’t stop to think how something may look to others because they follow their heart regardless of appearance.  They don’t spend time worrying how their grandkids will pay for college because they’re too busy figuring out how to unicycle to get an ice cream cone. It’s not just that they go with the flow; they create the flow.  Free spirits are those among us who thrive on passion and innovation.

Being a free spirit is a choice.  For the first part of my life I fell into the trap of having to plan out and justify every one of my actions.  Only things that were going to help out the future Todd were things on which I could I justify spending time doing.  I would only do something if I thought it would help secure the future to which I thought I was entitled.  Not exactly the poster child for a free spirit.

The planning wasn’t the problem.  The problem was I began to live only for the future.  I’d tell myself that I’d have time to take that trip or talk to that girl… later.  I’d be able to quit my job and move to the coast but needed just one more paycheck.  But the day for action conveniently never came.

We all fall into routine.  Don’t get me wrong, routine isn’t a bad thing until it leads to wishing away your entire life.  We end up sacrificing so much of the now in the hopes of giving our future selves exactly what we think they’ll want.  The most fucked up part is that we have no clue what we’ll want in the future.  If you would have asked my 22 year old self where I’d be at 26, I guarantee his answer would have involved law school and marriage.  Not traveling.  Not writing. Which shows we have no clue what we’ll want in the future.

Somewhere along the way, I started putting way more emphasis on doing as much as I could before it was too late.  I stopped choosing to do the things others wanted me to do and started only pursuing things that inspired me.  Once you start living like that it’s hard to stop.

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To be completely honest, I’m terrified that if I don’t do something right away I’ll never do it.  I’m not an anxious person, but once I find something I want to do, I feel trapped if I don’t make plans to do it right then and there.  This fear, irrational or not, is what compelled me to quit my job and travel.  It’s what made me buy a ticket to Burning Man before I knew anything about it. It’s why I moved to Dolni Bousav and hoped for the best.  

“Sometimes you’ve got to be able to listen to yourself and be okay with no one else understanding.” One for Sorrow, Christopher Barzak

I live in constant fear of regretting all of the things I didn’t do; of missing opportunities that could change my life.  It’s the reason why when someone asks me to do something I shrug my shoulders and say “you know, I don’t say no to much” before agreeing and jumping in with both feet.  The best part of saying yes to something is you never know where that choice will take you or who it’ll bring into your life.

This fear has been the driving force behind everything I’ve done for the past few years.  So many people delay things because the “timing wasn’t right” yet never go back to do them, and that’s not the type of person I want to be.  I became a free spirit out of fear and necessity more than a conscious desire.

Oddly enough, this fear led to my freedom. It became easier and easier to take the road less traveled. I don’t know exactly when it happened (my guess is after is moving to Europe to be an au pair but before moving to Melbourne on a whim with no real plan), but at some point my actions were accepted and even expected.  It became my M.O. to do random stuff that few of my friends would do.

Once you get a reputation as a “free spirit,” “vagabond,” “eccentric,” or whatever label you want to use, it’s a license to do whatever you want.  People start to treat you different.  They judge you less and accept you more.  They start to confess things to you about their life because you inspire them to take the leap.  You show them that the only “right” way to live is in pursuit of their dreams.

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“It’s an amazing thing when you finally settle in to knowing you’ll never fit in. The difference between the rest of the world and you; you feel too much about too many things. And most others feel not enough, about too few. Keep standing out. Keep showing the crowd what beautifully flying free is all about.”  J. Raymond

A lot of people didn’t agree with my decision to quit my job to go work on a cruiseship.  But by the time I left for Europe it was a forgone conclusion I was going to keep traveling.  To some, it’s odd for a grown man to dress in a tutu, but somehow no one was surprised when they saw me in mine.  People stare blankly at me for taking a month off to go to Asia, until they realize it’s me, then it seems to be fine.  If you give them the chance the right people will accept you for who you are so you might as well become the person you want to be.

For the longest time, I didn’t put this together.  As I alluded to before, until recently I never considered myself a free spirit.  Then in a very short period of time I was called out for being one and came across an article on Soul Anatomy about why the corporate world needs free spirits.   

As I read the article, I found myself realizing that each of the reasons was directly applicable to me.  

  • Free Spirits are masters at bringing their passion to everyday life.
  • Free Spirits thrive on innovation.
  • Free Spirits are independent.
  • Free Spirits put real meaning into buzzwords, they make abstractions practical.
  • Free Spirits prioritize human connectedness.

All of a sudden everything sort of clicked.  My natural eccentricness and desire to live the life I want to turned me into something I didn’t expect- a free spirit with the ability to inspire others.

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This mindset has allowed me to make an impact on those around me simply by being myself.  To say things others won’t.  To write about my feelings and experiences.  Most importantly, to be free enough to help others do the same.  

A friend asked me what I want most out of life.  After thinking about it I told him, “I don’t want very much. I’ve never really been a possessions guy.  I want to keep traveling and writing.  I really want to be the type of person whose presence gives others the excuse they may need to be 100% unapologetically themselves.”  If they need an excuse to wear a tutu, walk around barefoot, or hammock in the park I’m more than happy to be that excuse.  Nikki Rowe said it best ““I just want to live in a way that either wakes people up or shakes people up. Whether I have opened a wound or opened a heart, I have touched a life and helped bring a change.”

Stay Gold.

 

On Life After Burning Man…

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“Burning Man is the most creatively decadent week of the year. Burning Man is the wildest party you’ve ever crashed. Burning Man is a playground for the wide-eyed wanderer. Burning Man is a real life social network for dreamers, doers, and dancers. Burning Man is a vision of the way the world could be.  Burning Man is, again and forever, whatever you want it to be.”
Alex in Wonderland

Great things come to those who wait.  Better late than never.  Patience is a virtue.  I plan on hiding behind all these expressions as a reason for my laziness.  But really, let me first start off by apologizing for the delay in this post’s publication.  I’ve been back from my two-week hiatus for over a month now but hadn’t sat down to actually write about what I experienced in the two weeks I was gone.  To catch everyone up, I spent a week at Burning Man and the following week at Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Zion National Park, and Las Vegas before returning.  

I could write pages about the second week of my trip. About how amazing those national parks are.  About how I encourage all of you to explore them. About how you should never pretend you’re in Amsterdam before you get on the bus.  About how the climb is always worth it in the end, (right Seif)?  I will say, there is something about being out in nature, away from technology and the everyday hustle and bustle that really allows for you to focus on what truly matters.

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It also feels incredible to go on a 20 mile hike with your close friends and spend time being together with no diversions other than “Do you see this view” or “Look at that Moose.”  Personally, I was a much bigger fan of the Grand Tetons and Zion than of Yellowstone, but in truth all three have beauty in different ways.   

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As needed as the National Park leg of the trip was for me it wasn’t what I was most excited about before my trip.  

 

Ah, the elephant in the room.

Burning Man.  

Well, Burning Man has come and gone which means that I’m officially a burner.  I no longer have to wonder what the 10 Principles of Burning Man are like or if I’ll be able to survive it (spoiler alert, I did).  

Since returning I’ve had a lot of people ask “How was Burning Man?”  Lucky for me, I was saved having to answer this same question over and over again when a friend (thanks Adam) sent me the following link:

Honestly, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that video when I first watched it.  My friend Zoran and I were sitting in the RV outside Old Faithful, waiting on our group, when I got the link from Adam.  We laughed so hard we were in tears.  That video may be over the top, but not by much.  It honestly does a great job of capturing how difficult the experience is to describe and even to ask about.  

Each time I’ve tried to explain what Burning Man was like I’ve done a terrible job, which is why it’s taken me so long to finish this post. I know before even starting that I’ll fail at describing what Burning Man is, which is why I’m not going to.  Burning Man is different things to different people.  All of which are super personal and hard to describe.  Instead of telling you about Burning man I’ll do my best to explain what I took away from it.

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Before I start, let me answer one question that I’ve gotten a lot since I got back, the “Can I handle Burning Man?” question. The answer is, I don’t know.  People think there’s a certain “type” of person that goes to Burning Man, but there isn’t.  The playa is full of every type of person you’ll find in the world (seriously watch the How was Burning Man video).  I know that may sound cliche, but it’s the truth.  

So if you’re wondering if you could handle a week on the playa I’ll say this:

  • You must be open minded.  
  • You must be okay getting dirty (that includes not showering for days).  
  • You must not mind nakedness.  
  • You must  be okay with being made uncomfortable.  
  • You must enjoy eccentricities.  
  • You must be willing to go with the flow.
  • You must learn to appreciate the moment.  
  • You must be willing to explore.
  • You must want to take advantage of everything the playa provides.  

If those all sound like things you can do, then I highly suggest you check it out.

I’ve done quite a bit of stuff over the years. I’ve backpacked Europe, scuba dove the Great Barrier Reef, worked on a cruise ship, attending many a music festival, and even toured my personal version of heaven (the Jameson distillery in Dublin).  Even after all of that, I will not hesitate to admit that Burning Man was one of the most unique experiences of my life.

I’ve written about this topic before.  When it really comes down to it, every experience we have is completely personal and unique to us. Which makes describing them difficult, especially if there’s no real point of reference for the audience.  However, the reason I write is to share my experiences in a way that somehow they help someone else.

So let’s get started.

All the things you hear about Burning Man are true.  It’s huge (7 square miles), there are naked people everywhere, some burners are on drugs, the art is incredible, there’s an air of mystery every time you leave your camp, you have no idea what’s going to happen next, and the people are amazing.  

But there’s just so much more you can’t understand unless you’ve spent time on the playa, getting lost in a dust storm, unable to see or move, when all you were trying to do was swing and chat with the nice girl from LA in the bedazzled bra and spandex.  Instead of describing what Burning Man is like, the better approach is to focus on what I took away from it.

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 1. Everything is Temporary- Learn to accept it

The biggest thing I took away from Burning Man is the need to not only live in but truly appreciate the moment.  At Burning Man, everything is temporary.  To be happy you must cherish the moment and learn to let go.  For me, one of the hardest things in life is letting go.  Of people, of the past, of truths that no longer exist.  It feels like defeat.  It feels like failure. Which has never been something I was good at accepting.  I’ve always struggled with letting go of things because they were outside my control.  Chalk it up to one of my many flaws.

Burning Man doesn’t give you the option of holding on.  The desert doesn’t care what you found or who you met. Things are taken away from you without even realizing it.  You tell yourself you’ll see her again (Julia Lopez if you’re reading this I haven’t forgotten you)  or you’ll find the “Shitty Drinks, No Ice” bar (yes it’s exactly what it sounds like) again, but you won’t.

It wasn’t until the middle of the week that I truly realized this.    Let me reiterate, Burning Man is big.  Fucking huge.  It’s 7 square miles, 65,000 people laid out in a C-shaped grid.  You use times and letters as coordinates.  For example, my camp was near 6:45 and I, meaning that you’d have to find that intersection to be near my camp.  However, even if knowing the proper intersection didn’t guarantee you’d find what you were looking for as there are tents, RVs, cars, and camps spread out as far as the eye can see.  

The third night of Burning Man I wandered away from the group.

**Quick Justification**
For those that know me, this will come as no surprise.  Three years of solo traveling has ruined any patience I might have had. I couldn’t handle sitting around hoping that all eight of us would be ready to go at some point.  An altered state of mind only increased my desire to explore the playa. My logic is that we’re adults capable of doing our own thing and having a good time without having to hold each other’s hands the entire time.
***End of Justification***

I thought it was a great idea to ride my bike across the playa to the light tunnel which I hadn’t seen yet.

20 minutes later I’m still riding my bike and I hear a “thunk thunk.”  I look down and realize that the chain has come off and my bike has bent.  I’m properly fucked.  I’m miles away from camp.  In my altered state I know I have 2 options.  Start walking back to the RV or walk around the playa and try to make the best of everything.  I choose the second option.  

A couple of hours go by and I realize it’s time to start walking back.  I’m nowhere near my camp.  A few more hours go by and I’m still searching for the RV.  The desert is cold at night and I’m starting to freak out a bit. I finally remember that we’re near 6:45 and I.  Next thing I know, I’m literally standing staring up at the sign for 6:45 and I with no idea where to go next.

So close but so far.

At this point, all I want in the entire world is to just lay down.  I truly believed that when the sun rises I’ll be okay. By sheer luck, I came across a hut that had neon psychedelic paintings hung all over, cushions, and blankets. No one was around so I sat down.

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The playa provides.

I wait until the sun rises and 4 minutes later I find my camp.  

The point is that random hut with the amazing neon psychedelic art may have saved my life, or at the very least my sanity.  And I couldn’t find it again if my life dependent on it.  It was within 1,000 steps of my camp where I spent an entire week and I have no clue how to get back to it.  Someone took the time to create it and I’ll never know who or why.

But that’s Burning Man.  People spend so much time and effort creating art and relics only to have them be burned down at the end of the week.  It truly is a lesson that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

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2. Say Yes.

One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is “Participation.”  The best thing you could ever do is get off the sidelines. Say yes. Not sure if the Burning Man Choir is for you?  Start signing.  Unsure if you can handle the zipline?  Mount up.  Worried about meeting new people?  Play 1-minute games with a group where you rotate partners after each round.  

The point is, saying yes only increases the more chances you have at discovering a new passion.  Something that you had no idea you liked, but now can’t live without.   Saying yes increases the chances you return home with an unbelievable story.  Saying yes increases the chances of making a new friend.

If something no matter how weird, random, or obscure catches your attention pursue it.  If you don’t go to that stage now you’ll never go.  If you keep riding your bike and don’t stop at that tent you’ll never see it again.  If you don’t stop at the pop-up bar you’ll never know what the specialty drink is.

You can’t be afraid to explore.  You can’t be afraid of doing your own thing.  You can’t be afraid to say yes. You never know where you’ll end up if you approach things with an open mind and a desire to experience as many things as possible.  

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3. Don’t just talk about it. Be about it.

This became the unofficial motto for our group.  Burning Man isn’t a place you go to brag about once you get home.  It’s a place where you learn to live.  A place where you put your money where your mouth.  A place where you don’t talk the talk unless you’re willing to walk the walk.     

Anytime someone would drag their feet someone else would call them out a casual “hey don’t talk about it, be about it.” which was code for less talk more action.  Once we heard that each and every one of us would be a little more willing to go outside our comfort zone.  We’d be more willing to say yes to something completely crazy.  

It was a great reminder that talking accomplishes nothing.  If you want a great story, to grow, or create change, you must be willing to take action.  After all, words are wind.

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Each of these lessons is applicable to more than just Burning Man.  If more of us learned to let go while living in the moment, embraced more opportunities without fear, and followed up our talk with action, we’d find our lives transformed.  

At the end of it, that’s what Burning Man is really about.  Transformation.  It’s about teaching us you don’t have to be in the desert to live by these rules.  The best thing each of us can do is enjoy everything as it comes and cherish the memories you create while always looking out for the next adventure.

Stay Gold.

On The 10 Principles of Burning Man

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It’s become more and more apparent to me over the past few weeks that most people don’t know much about Burning Man.  For those who have heard of it there seems to be a vast variety of opinions on what it is.  I’ve heard things such as: it’s just a place for “hippies to go do drugs”, it’s a “spiritual experience”, it’s “just another music festival”, and that it will be the best and most difficult week of your life.  There were also plenty of people who were hearing about it from me for the very first time.

I’ll be honest, when I first got my ticket I didn’t really know what I was getting into (still don’t as I’m sitting in the airport waiting to officially start the journey) but I’ve read a lot about Burning Man over the past couple of months.  I’ll be the first to tell you that reading can only get you so far.  With that in mind, I’m trying to be prepared without having expectations.  

However, there are some things about Burning Man that are applicable not only to burners but to everyone.  I thought before I officially go off into the desert (potentially never to return) I’d highlight the 10 principles of Burning Man, which really is at the very core of week, along with my thoughts on each one before my first burn.

The 10 Principles of Burning Man

Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey wrote the Ten Principles in 2004 as guidelines for the newly-formed Regional Network. They were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture as it had organically developed since the event’s inception.

Radical Inclusion

Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

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My Take:  The more I researched about Burning Man the more I realized that there was no “one type” of person that went.  The attendees range all over the spectrum. From the elderly, 20 somethings, singles, couples, gay, straight, families with children, hippies, art lovers, crafters, music lovers, and the list goes on and on.  One of the things I’m most excited for is the thought of pure excitement I get wondering who I’m going to meet over the course of the next week.

Meeting new people (people who I had no idea existed) was always my favorite part of traveling.  There’s a quote by William Least Heat Moon- “What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”

The principle of Radical Inclusion helps each burner to come to Burning Man with no agenda.  They aren’t trying to be cool.  They aren’t trying to see a single act.  They aren’t trying to do a lot of drugs.  They come knowing that whoever they are and wherever they’re from they’ll be accepted.  For some, Burning Man may be the only place they find that feeling.

Gifting

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

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My Take:  When I tell people that you can’t buy things at Burning Man (outside of coffee and ice) they look at me funny. A lot of people hear ‘gifting’ and believe Burning Man is a barter economy.  In the real world, people believe ‘you can’t get something for nothing’ and feel that should apply to Burning Man as well.  But Burning Man doesn’t want to be like the “real world.”  It’s gifting not bartering.  You give your gift without any expectation of getting something back.  It teaches you how to give selflessly- with a pure heart and not some alternative motive of what’s in it for you.

“The point is not to pay back kindness but to pass it on.”  Julia Alvarez

The principle of Gifting exists to encourage burners to bring something to Burning Man they can share with the community.  It’s supposed to help keep you in the mindset that simple acts of kindness can make another person’s day.  Gifts range from helping someone put up their tent, to alcohol, to massages, to bracelets, water, food, music, and whatever else you can think of.  

When I first got my ticket, what I was going to “gift” was one of the more stressful things to figure out.  I don’t have a lot of talents.  I’m not crafty.  I’m not very creative.  I don’t have a lot of money.  But the more I read the more it seemed that it was more about giving someone something you couldn’t easily put price on.  Your time.  A helping hand.  A positive attitude.  Then it hit me.  I wanted to give memories.  I bought a polaroid camera and a bunch of film.  I plan on taking pictures of people and giving them the picture to help them remember that moment in time.  I know from first-hand experience how common it is to look back and wish you’d captured more memories along the way.

Decommodification

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

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My Take: At Burning man it’s not what you have but who you are that matters.  You’re not supposed to wear clothes with labels or advertise for any company.  It’s supposed to be a place where 70,000 people can go and get away from all the noise for a week. No ads.  No media telling you you’re less without something.  An oasis away from materialism.

“I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off “ ― Chuck Palahniuk

Burning Man was created by people that we pissed off and wanted to create a change in how our society thinks.  The decommodification principle exists to ensure that Burning Man never becomes what Coachella has.  It also exists to help people realize that they don’t need any material thing to be worthwhile.  Buying that new car or house isn’t going to put your soul at rest.  The sooner we all realize that the happier we’ll be.

Radical Self-reliance

Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

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My Take:  Other than gifting this was the one that gave me the most anxiety.  People may argue that I’m a pretty independent person.  That I can handle anything that comes my way.  To that I don’t disagree.  However, I’ve never been the Bear Grylls type.  I’ve never been a huge camper or into learning how to create a 3 bedroom hut from bamboo.  I’ve been to some less than glamorous places and slept in some locations that would give my mother pause.  But for the most part I’ve always been near civilization incase something happened.

That’s not the case at Burning Man.  You are in the Nevada desert for one week.  Anything you want during the week you have to bring with you when you arrive.  Water, food, clothes, protection from the elements, everything.  There isn’t a gas station on the corner that you can run to if you forgot to bring enough water.  No Maccas to hit up if you’re feeling peckish.  

Radical Self-reliance is one of true tests of Burning Man.  It’s where you really show that you want to be there.  It’s not hanging out on a beach in Croatia.  It’s exploring yourself in the middle of the desert.  It’s not for everyone.  But I truly think if you can manage to survive you come back with a stronger sense of who you are and what you’re capable of.

Radical Self-expression

Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

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My Take:  For years, one of my life rules has been “whatever you are be a good one”.  To me, it’s more important that you’re true to yourself and go with what you feel than to pretend to be something else (even if that something else is deemed “good” or “successful” by society.)

Radical Self- expression may be the principle that everyone knows and understands without realizing it.  For people who know what Burning Man is they automatically think of people in crazy costumes- guys in tutus (Tuesday is Tutu day after all), superheroes- people walking around naked.  Each day is like Halloween allowing for each burner to be whoever they want to be that day.

But it’s not just about the freedom to wear whatever you want.  It’s about how you spend your days.  There’s a spreadsheet of events at Burning Man (over 3,000 lines) and here are just a few examples:

Kickboxing Conditioning
-Kickboxing conditioning is a high energy class that will teach you the fundamentals of kickboxing while blasting your cardio, building muscle and burning tons of fat. The curriculum will focus on basic techniques, conditioning and overall health, while maintaining a fast and fun pace.

Porn & Donuts
-What’s better than a deliciously decadent donut? How about a side of hot porn? Movies start screening at about 10pm. Hot hand crafted donuts are fresh off the fryers by midnight.
     Porn and Donuts was started in 2011. Our mission at PND is to serve deliciously decadent doughnut delights to as many dusty hungry burners as we possibly can. We screen top-notch vintage (silent era) pornography in our outdoor movie theater while serving hot, fresh, on playa made donuts.
     Last year we served approximately 3,000 freshly donuts prepared on playa (300 pounds of dry donut mix). We even managed to convert one or two vegetarians along the way.

Got Framed
-Got Framed is a fun & interactive art piece for the making of memories. From afar, it’s a life-sized, fabulous frame that captures a notable image in the distance. Up close, it’s the ultimate stage to strike a pose on! With ladders on either side & monkey bars across the top, you can let your imagination go wild. Inspired by the artist’s Abuela, Rosamelia, in Puerto Rico who turned 91 last year, the design is a Baroque style, gold, beveled frame with 91 roses for Rosamelia, identical on either side. The solid structure and ladders inspire awesome participation, encouraging passersby to BE THE ART. Step up, climb on, take a photograph…’monkey around’, change the image, and invite others to join in. Have fun interacting with a large scale art piece and make a memory to take with you.

Drink Tequila and call Da Vinci a Hack
-LeoNERDo stole all his ideas from Tesla, we’ll prove it, over Tequila.

You get the idea.  Some events are fun, some serious, some sexual, and some ridiculous. Whatever you want to find is somewhere in Black Rock City giving you the perfect chance to express yourself however you want.

Communal Effort

Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

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My Take:  Life is better when people work together.  Few people accomplish anything completely on their own.  Collaboration breeds innovation.  Innovation advances society.  The environment of Burning Man encourages people to work together to create amazing things.  The most common of which is art.  If you’ve never seen the incredible artwork that makes it’s way to the playa do yourself a favor and do a Google Image search for Burning Man, actually it’s important enough I’ll do it for you (click here).

None of the breathtaking art could be created if people weren’t willing to work together to accomplish it.  Collaboration teaches us to put our egos aside, realizing that we’re all in this together so we might as well make it incredible.

Civic Responsibility

We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

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My Take: Ah, the lesson most of us have been trying to learn for years.  If you’re in charge of something you’re also responsible for it.  With over 3000 different events burners rely on each other to make sure everyone is held accountable.  There is no “man” to rebell against.  If you do anything disrespectful you’re basically telling the person who took the time to put on the event “go fuck yourself.”

On the flip side, if you’ve decided to enhance everyone’s burn by hosting an event then you’re responsible to make sure everything goes according to plan.  Not just with your fellow burners but with the local law enforcement officials as well.  In the end it’s all about accountability and making sure everyone has an amazing time.

Leaving No Trace

Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

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My Take:  This one is pretty self-explanatory, but fascinating.  One week there’s a city in the middle of the desert, the next all signs of that city are gone- like no one was ever there.  It’s incredible that 70,000 people come together and each and every person knows the responsibility of cleaning up after themselves and actually does it.  There are weeks I can’t even get my roommates to do the dishes.  But that’s not an option at Burning man, every bottle, can, wrapper, and container is taken away by those who use them.  You carry a bag around for MOOT (matter out of place) to ensure that you (or someone else) doesn’t leave something on the playa.

Participation

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

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My Take: Say yes. To as much as you can.  For as long as you can.   For whatever reason, people choose not to try new things.  Usually, they’re scared they may not be good at it or other people will judge them for doing it.  That doesn’t fly at Burning Man.  You have to be willing to say yes to things you’ve never dreamed of doing.  With so many options and people you have no idea going in what situations you’ll find yourself in.  

You can’t be afraid to explore.  You can’t be afraid of doing your own thing.  You can’t be afraid to say yes.  This is true not just at Burning Man, but also in life.  You never know where you’ll end up if you approach things with an open mind and a desire to experience as many things as possible.  

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.” -Steve Jobs

Participation helps people to acquire as many “dots” as possible.  After all, you never know what experience will not only change you, but change the world.

Immediacy

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

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My Take: Regardless of what we’re doing throughout the day: eating with friends, working, exercising, reading, etc our thoughts are usually somewhere else.  We’re terrible at being fully present.  Technology has enhanced the ease for us to be in multiple places at once thus limiting how involved we become in the immediate present.  I’ve been trying to be on my phone less and pay attention to where I am, who I’m with, and what I’m doing more.  But it’s not easy.  

We could all learn how to really focus on the now.  Not worry about what has already happened.  Forget about what could happen.  Ignore the pulling urge to think about what someone else is up to and be where your feet are.

On Life Before Burning Man…

Trey Ratcliff - Burning Man - Tall Onion Dome-X2

I leave for Burning Man in just under two weeks.  I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t equal parts excited and terrified.  There are so many things that go into spending a week at Burning Man that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you first start researching it.  It’s not like other festivals or events where you plan the week before, show up, dance for a few hours, then go home and go to bed.  No, Burning Man requires months of planning and preparation. Participants live in the desert for a week with no ability to purchase anything (other than ice and coffee).  You’ve got to bring everything you need to survive with you. For those not familiar with Burning Man check out the 10 Principles of Burning Man and also have a look at the video below.  

Burning Man has been on my bucket list for years.  It’s something I said I wanted to do without knowing much about it.  Honestly, that’s been my approach to life over the past few years.  I hear a story, talk with a friend, or come across an article about something and before I know it, I’m completely enamored by it.  I’m consumed by the belief that if I don’t do it, or if I don’t go there, my life will lose all meaning and I’ll look back with regret.

Perhaps that’s a bit dramatic, but sometimes the things that motivates us are.  When I really think about it, I know that one can’t live a life completely regret-free, but I once read, “In the end, all we can do is hope to end up with the right regrets,” which, for me, helps to keep things in perspective.  

You can’t know what things you’ll look back on with regret.  Sometimes, it’s the things we’ve done, and sometimes we regret the things we didn’t do. Though in my experience, it’s much more common to look back and wish you’d done something than actually regret doing it.  Taking the “what if” out my life has long been a goal of mine.

With this belief in mind, I continue to explore the world and my own consciousness.  Where that path may lead, I have no clue.

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In truth, I have no idea what I’ll find out on the playa (what burners call the area of the desert where Burning Man takes place).  I have no idea who I’ll meet or how I’ll behave.  I don’t know if I’ll be overwhelmed with emotion while standing in the temple or think everything there is completely over the top.  

Make no mistake, Burning Man isn’t for everyone.  It takes a special type of person to go there and be completely at peace in the openness.  

Maybe it’s not for me.

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Or maybe it’ll be the best week of my life.

I’ve missed the uncertainty.  I’ve missed not knowing what tomorrow may bring.  I’ve missed the underlying sense of adventure I once had.

The first 22 years of my life were planned and structured.  I had a good idea of what I was going to be doing each and every day weeks before that day came.  It’s not a bad way to grow up, but it’s a difficult way to grow.

The next 3 years were a whirlwind of traveling, questions, and uncertainty.  New places and new people weekly.  It helped me to become even more comfortable with who I was while learning to adapt to any situation.  Not only did I learn to adapt, but I truly learned to enjoy the freedom that comes with the uncertainty I was faced with.  It taught me that change is not only good, but necessary, and with the right attitude, any new situation can be made better than what came before it.

“Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful, it is threatening because it means things may get worse. To the hopeful, it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident, it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better.”

-King Whitney Jr

It’s been over a year since I moved to Kansas City to go back to a “normal life.”  I know that moving back to the States was the right decision at the time (I was seriously burnt out), and I’ve found a job that I enjoy with a company I’m honored to be apart of which is more than most can say.  However, for me, all of the routine takes its toll on me as much as the 3 years of traveling did.  It’s taken some of the excitement and adventure out of life (truth be told, it has taken some of the anxiety out as well, nothing is ever all good or all bad after all).

After what some would consider a 3 year ‘vacation’ (those people have no idea what they’re talking about) I haven’t taken any time off in the past year.  I couldn’t afford it and it wasn’t something I felt I deserved.

I wanted to really throw myself into my new life.  Which meant focusing on my new city and new job.  You have to understand that for 3 years, I didn’t work a job or live in a city I expected to still be in 6 months later.  I learned to keep my eyes to the horizon always looking for my next opportunity (a blessing and a curse I’ve learned).  I’ve done my best to not do that over the past year. To be fully present where I am. To be honest, it’s something I struggle with every day, but that’s a topic for another time.

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Burning Man gives me an excuse to look toward the horizon again.  What excites me most about Burning Man is the thought that I can go back to being who I was while traveling.  I can live in the moment without caring what the future will bring and be free of the responsibility I’ve found in KC.  I can turn a corner  and meet someone not from the heart of America.  I can say whatever I want and wear whatever I want without any fear of judgment, because well, it’s Burning Man.

In the end, I need a place where I can recharge by getting to live that type of lifestyle for just a little longer.  I’m not ready to grow up, and the beautiful thing about Burning Man is you don’t have to.  It’s a place where adults can dress like superheroes, watch the sunrise come over the mountains, ride around on art cars, and rediscover their inner child.  The person they wanted to be before the world told them who they should be.

The Great Heads-X2

Like I said, I don’t know what I’ll find at Burning Man.  Everything I’ve read says it’s a life changing experience as long as you come into it with an open mind and open heart.  Those two things were my biggest takeaways from years on the road and things I’m beginning to fear I’ve started to lose. I’m hoping that Burning Man helps me rediscover those amazing and welcoming parts of myself.

Only time will tell.  Two weeks and counting…

Stay Gold.