I spent the last 40 days hopping flights all the way around the world. 18 flights, 19 bus rides, 3 trains, 3 boats, 10 car drives, 8 taxis, and 6 tuk-tuks later, I saw an incredibly wide swathe of the world in an incredibly limited time.
In the past 40 days, I’ve seen fjords. Every one of the oceans. The deserts of the Sahara, the jungles of Africa, the beaches of the Pacific, mountain ranges from the Cascades to the Southern Alps. I’ve seen rich people, poor people, happy people, sad people, hungry people, fat people, naked people, and people in burkhas.
“Many times I’ve gazed along the open road. Many times I’ve lied, many times I’ve listened. Many times I’ve wondered how much there is to know.”
– Led Zeppelin, Over The Hills And Far Away
Like the Led Zeppelin lyrics above, it sometimes makes me wonder that of all the things I’ve seen, I haven’t seen a fraction of them all. It felt like a whirlwind. I spent 21 nights in hostels, 11 in hotels, 7 in guesthouses, 5 in airplanes, and 1 short Arctic night curled up in a chilly car.
Some say that we’re all the same. Others say that we’re very different. I haven’t come to my own conclusion to this, and I don’t think I ever will. There’s just too much to absorb.
You swiftly develop opinions when embedded in such a breakneck pattern of travel. So I’m sorting my retrospective look at my RTW into sections and ranking Iceland, Morocco, Dubai, Cambodia, Bali, New Zealand on food, value for the dollar, natural beauty, suitability for backpacking, and finally friendliness/overall impression. It’s biased, but then again isn’t every travel assessment?
Food Around The World
The food here is surprisingly delicious and it gets top marks because it’s so ridiculously cheap. You’ll rarely pay more than $3-4 for a huge meal, and it is not difficult to eat for $2 or less. A few times I had dishes of chicken and rice that cost $1.75 and were more than enough to fill me. It’s close to Thai food, with less reliance upon rice noodles, more vegetables, and some Vietnamese soup influences.
I rate New Zealand’s food so high because of two things: the diners and the coffee shops. The diners are amazing, and they’re everywhere from little country towns to the major metropolis. It’s totally subjective, but the meat pies and potatoes and gravy are like my home region’s soul food. There’s also a little sampling of any sort of cuisine, too. Prices tend to be a little steep but you can still get a meal for $7 or $8.
Bali’s food was not as good as I’d hoped it would be. It was still quite good, and affordable, but my choices were severely limited to some less than palatable roadside fare a few times. If you can find a slightly nicer restaurant which serves other Asian fare, however, the food’s amazing. I had excellent Thai in Ubud, for around $3.
One would think Iceland isn’t a food paradise, but its offerings are on par with any major American metro area. Local cuisine is rich, meaty, of excellent quality, and the only downside is that it’s so terribly expensive. Very similar to Scandinavian fare.
I can’t really rate Dubai’s food any higher –it’s like trying to rate a mall’s food court. Because the whole place is a mall, and if there’s a place to sample the local fare I wasn’t able to find it. The city is a city of Five Guys, Pizza Hut, Tim Horton’s, and Starbucks.
I would’ve given Morocco a higher rating because I quite like lamb tajine, but sadly the food quality was terrible. This is not just a subjective opinion, either: Not only was my stomach queasy many times from sheer greasiness, I will remember that panini in Casablanca for a long time because it gave me a week-long feverish gut-wrenching experience that I wish upon nobody.
Without a doubt, Cambodia is the winner in the value category. Things are so cheap that it’s often ludicrous. It’s funny how you get ingrained into the prices of the locale, and then you realize you’re upset at a taxi ride costing 25 cents more than it should have. Drinks: $0.50. Meal: $3. Hostel: $5. Taxi: $2.
While still quite a bit more expensive than I think it should be, it’s hard to beat the transportation and food costs. Drinks: $1.50. Meal: $5. Hostel: $12. Taxi: $4.
While a little steeper than back home, the benefit of traveling to New Zealand is that you know the language, so you can understand your options easily, and there are always multiple options for everything. My domestic flight from Wellington to Auckland, for example, cost $35 which was cheaper than a bus fare of $41. The lack of a language barrier also means you learn different tricks like: an entire Domino’s pizza is $4. Sushi’s marked down to $4 after 5pm. Drinks: $3. Meal: $8. Hostel: $20. Taxi: $15.
While it’s cheaper than many destinations, Morocco’s a very difficult place to get a deal because everything is up for discussion, and the bad news is that you’re going to lose every haggling argument. The vendors know you’ve got cash, and they know what they can expect to get from you (and in many cases, they just made more anyway by fudging the change). All the little losses add up. Drinks: $2. Meal: $6. Hostel: $15. Taxi: $4.
It’s the richest city in the world. Things cost a lot. It doesn’t seem unreasonable or unfair, however, and some things that I had to buy, like the beard trimmer at the supermarket, were only $8. Drinks: $4. Meal: $12. Hostel: $35. Taxi: $10.
Unbelievably high, in part because I landed in the middle of high season. I saw things like low-end hotel rooms going for $320, and a mid-range meal for one could easily run $50 with a couple drinks. It’s still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Drinks: $10. Meal: $14. Hostel: $25. Taxi: $10.
Note: I’m not taking architecture and cities into account, that’s too hard to take into consideration.
Iceland & New Zealand
I’m rating both of these countries at the same level because, in a large part, they’re similar in natural appearance. New Zealand is far more varied and a little more temperate, but Iceland is far more drastic. I love glacial and volcanic landscapes, and both offer the world’s best. I feel like countries at extreme high and low latitudes offer a special level of atmosphere…it’s like they’re at an eternal golden hour, with the sun low in the sky, extended sunrises and sunsets, and such clean air.
While I didn’t really like the urban areas of Bali as much as other places I visited, the coastline and waters of Bali are almost unreal. For the water lover, it’s the perfect destination. Snorkeling and scuba diving are the activities of choice here.
The majority of Morocco isn’t especially impressive from a natural perspective (just a lot of semi-arid land and a few dusty mountains) until you reach the Sahara. And then it’s beautiful. Being out in the middle of an expanse of dunes is a unique experience. Knowing you could walk in the same direction for days and see nothing except rolling hills of sand is a special feeling.
Cambodia’s natural beauty isn’t very unique…it is a huge low-lying delta area for much of the country, with a few hills developing in the north. It’s nice because much of it is so undeveloped, and it has the largest lake of southeast Asia, but it’s most just miles of rice fields and thick jungly terrain.
Dubai doesn’t have natural beauty: just concrete.
Backpacking Around the World
I took a few things into account while thinking about backpacking around the world: Primarily cost, but also accessibility to amenities.
Perhaps the best place in the world (definitely the best place I’ve ever traveled to) for backpackers to get the most out of their time and money. What it’s lacking in natural beauty (it’s just a delta region with a lot of water and a lot of rice paddies) it makes up for by being incredibly friendly, incredibly cheap, and scattered with hostels and transportation options. There are lots of travelers, even in the slow season, so the backpacking culture is fun and lively.
The country has an amazing backpacking culture, even for its own residents, with hostels in every village. The costs are approachable, long-term employment for backpackers looking to stay a few months is widely available, public transit is excellent, and the common language of English makes it easy for all.
The reason Bali ranks higher than Iceland for me is because of cost, and because of places like the Gili Islands. Bali’s economy exists because of tourism, so it’s definitely geared towards the foreigner. It’s cheap and beautiful, but unfortunately a little too saturated with Western influence for my taste.
I would’ve perhaps put Iceland at the top of the list (I easily made more friends and visited with more people here than anywhere else) except for the fact that it’s shockingly and cripplingly expensive. Many travelers get around this by camping the whole way around Iceland, but for many that’s not the best option. It’s such a beautiful place.
In Morocco what’s available varies widely from city to city. You’ll find that Marrakesh is extremely affordable and accommodating for backpackers, but out near the desert (usually Merzouga) is not as quite as easy to get around in or find a good bed. And a city like Casablanca is impossible to find either a hostel or a fellow traveler in. The amount of haggling (for everything) makes it very difficult to have a relaxing experience.
Basically the world’s worst backpacker destination. There aren’t any hostels to speak of and the ones that are there cost $50 a night. The sheer amount of Russian oligarchs and Saudi oil princes jack up the cost of every attraction worth doing. There also isn’t a local culture to speak of.
This is totally subjective. It’s based on how excited I was to be there, how many friends I made, how many locals I had conversations with, and things like weather or geography or simply just fun experiences.
I’m biased, of course, but I just have to hand it to Kiwis for being the friendliest, most relaxed, accepting people on the planet. I like to say that Kiwis are Aussies that forgot how to cuss. I feel very much at home in New Zealand. The country is beautiful.
Though expensive, Iceland was so impressive that I didn’t want to leave. I feel like living in Reykjavik would give you a very culturally rich life. The music, the food, the shops, the nature, all of it provides a very Nordic vibe…with a very edgy, frontier attitude.
I didn’t expect to love Cambodia so much. Attractions like Angkor Wat and cities like Phnom Penh are overrated, but the rural areas and even smaller towns like Siem Reap are quite nice to visit. I felt welcomed, relaxed, and was never badgered for money like in other places. Locals are kind and friendly.
I was impressed with Dubai really only because of the amazing infrastructure and architecture of the place. I didn’t make a single friend here; mostly because there’s no one to make friends with. It’s a very impersonal concrete mall in the desert. It’s home to the world’s most impressive construction: that’s about it.
I was disappointed in Bali because of the sheer amount of touristic development that has happened in the last decade. Nearly everywhere you go you’re assaulted by touristy shops, touts, chain stores from the West, and so many British tourists buying discount vacation packages.
Before I left for Morocco, I wanted to love it….and I did like the desert and the Berber culture. But the rest of it: I can take it or leave it, and I left it. I left it on August 29th, to be exact. The food made me violently sick, every single person except for one tried to get money from me, and the cities are a chaotic mess. I wish it were possible to get to the Sahara without transiting through places like Casablanca.
My Around-The-World Trip In Summary
Your mileage may vary. Just because I prefer New Zealand doesn’t mean you will, except I’ve never actually met someone who hasn’t fallen in love with it. And I’ve met plenty of people who love Morocco. It’s all what you’re looking for, what makes you uncomfortable, and what you’re already used to. I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa and Europe and less in the Middle East and Asia, so I’m used to some cultural quirks rather than others.
I met travelers from a wide gamut. Younger students on gap years. Tourists with fanny packs. Voluntourists on two-week mini-vacations. Lost boys with dreadlocks and little Ganesha necklaces. Old ladies who are just off to see the world with their friends. Adventure travelers who dive from planes and scuba through wrecks and buy beater campervans to drive through the jungle.
If you’re actually traveling to travel, six countries is far too much to cram into 40 days. But it’s possible, very possible, and a whole lot of fun.
Every time I leave the US, I leave wanting to find something. I learn more than any class ever taught me. But the more I am exposed to, the further away the target flees. I’ll probably leave the US soon and not come back for a while.
Because like Led Zeppelin says later on in Over The Hills And Far Away:
Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing
Many many men can’t see the open road.
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