I spent 2014 wrapping up my Master’s degree in the Netherlands and cramming in as much travel as possible. Between finishing my thesis and scraping together pennies out of my student budget, the first half of the year was a bit slow — my daily adventure to the library was about as exciting as it got. But still this year I made it to 10 countries on 3 continents, including my first foray into (Northern) Africa. In these 10 countries I reached 35 different locations, 27 of which I’d never been to before.
Of these 35 places and countless new friends and adventures, I’ve come up with 8 highlights, the top points of my year in travel, that I’ll share here. And out of these and other travel experiences I’ve had this year, I’ve come away with four big-picture reflections on travel and life as a broke millenial out in the world.
Without further ado, three maps using my enthusiastic derpface to chart my major destinations of the year, followed by pictures of stuff and words about said stuff.
This year I made it to one new continent and six new countries. In these places I met architects and students and sand sculptors, made new friends and met the friends and family of existing friends, rode a moped and a third-world bus and the London Underground all for the first time, traveled in three languages and tried my hand at two more, slept in a tent and a mud brick hut and a train and my friend’s back porch, and finally learned to like Dutch snack food.
It’d be hopeless to try to say what the best experience of the year was, so in chronological order, here are the eight memories I’m looking back on most nostalgically and appreciatively at the end of 2014:
#1: Camping in the Sahara Desert
On the second day of 2014 I went to Morocco with two friends from the Netherlands. In our two weeks there, we saw historic and modern cities, stayed in a town in the middle of nowhere where we were constantly stared at for being the only foreigners, almost got scammed and left in a village in the desert by a fake taxi driver, and rode a packed local bus that felt like it would fall apart every time it stopped to pick up a hailing pedestrian on the side of the road. But the best part was the two nights we spent in the Sahara desert.
The first night we stayed in the tiny village of Hassi Labied, the last Moroccan village in the Sahara before the Algerian border. There we stayed with Hassan, probably the most interesting Couchsurfing host I’ve ever had. Hassan and his mother and younger brother were Berbers, and as such had been nomads in the Sahara until the border between Morocco and Algeria had closed in 1994, which forced them to settle down with a few dozen other Berber families in the village that became Hassi Labied, where Hassan gave camel-back tours of the desert. We Couchsurfed with him (for free, of course), and then rode his camels into the Erg Chebbi Dunes, where he shares a campsite with a few other tour guides. My friends and I spent that night under the clearest and brightest sky of stars I’ve ever seen, so cold I kept waking up shivering under my six blankets.
What impressed me most was the stars. We all laid for a while against the top of a dune so that we were tilted about 45 degrees from the ground, and the sky was so clear and seemed so close and enveloping that I lost my sense of up and down and felt like I was just floating under it.
#2: Hiking in Luxembourg
In June, after five months in which I ventured no further from Leiden than the hour-and-a-half train ride to Antwerp, my friend Erik invited me to join him and his family for their annual walking trip in Luxembourg. I didn’t really understand what a weekend of ‘walking’ in Luxembourg would entail, but in desperation to escape my thesis cave, I accepted.
The Marche de L’Armee is some kind of recognition of the Luxembourg army that I still don’t understand, and every year in its honor participants — for some reason mostly Dutch people — spend two days trekking 40 km through the Ardennes in Diekirch, Luxembourg. Everyone spends the weekend at a giant camping full of RVs and Dutch families who have brought their own bread and hagelslag. On the first day nearly everyone in attendance walks 20 km through the hills, and the most obnoxious and cardiovascularly ambitious walk another 20 the second day. I decided 20 km was enough for me and stayed behind on day two, along with the roughly half of the participants who were of similar opinion, and spent the day napping under a tree and reading The Time Machine. The nature was idyllic, something you miss living in the Netherlands, and it was just what I needed to hit the reset button and go back home and (barely) finish my MA.
That weekend was also the first game of the FIFA World Cup, and the on-site pub was of course broadcasting the Netherlands vs Spain match, which we won 5-1, so it was a weekend full of Oranje. In fact, between that, the Dutch-style camper park, and the fact that between all the Dutch families there there was nothing you could find in an Albert Heijn grocery store that you couldn’t find there, it was one of the Dutchest weekends I’ve ever had.
#3: 4th of July in Leiden
This one just barely fits under the category of ‘travel’ since it happened while I was living as an expat in Leiden and a lot of the people in attendance were Couchsurfers passing through. On the Fourth of July this year, I teamed up with my two good American friends in Leiden to throw a good ol’ trashy redneck-style American Independence Day party, and it was one of the best social events of the year.
The Couchsurfing community in Leiden is unbelievably creative and we have a lot of theme parties, so everyone was used to getting dressed up for things like this. Half of us recycled or swapped leftover pieces of costumes we had used for the Murder Mystery Dinner or the Roaring 20s Birthday Party or Slutty Halloween. Lots of Couchsurfers who were just passing through Leiden or the surrounding areas joined the party, and my top secret hunch punch recipe was as big a success as it had been at earlier Leiden Couchsurfing parties.
Just like any other Couchsurfing event I’ve been to or hosted, I met a lot of interesting, sincere people who had something to say. Some I haven’t talked to since and some have become friends, but regardless it’s sharing wild nights like these with great company that makes the people you meet while traveling so energizing and worthwhile.
#4: Hitchhiking through France
In August this year I hitchhiked for my first time. I started in Utrecht in the Netherlands with my friend Lennart and we hitchhiked all the way to Barcelona, staying one night in Nancy out of necessity and one night in Lyon out of desire. When we got stuck for several hours at a gas station outside Nancy, it turned dark and we eventually gave up our hopes of finding another ride that night. As we were preparing to pitch a tent in a field behind the gas station, I sent a quick message to my friend in Lyon to tell her that we were stuck and would start up again the next day, and within 30 minutes she had found us an emergency Couchsurfing host in Nancy. Not only did Quentin, our host, rescue us from a night sleeping outside, but he lived in an enormous apartment in the middle of Nancy’s imposingly beautiful historic district, a few minutes’ walk from the Place de la Carriere.
Seeing France for my first time was great, but the real highlight was the people we met along the way. From a disillusioned “France sucks and French people suck and everything sucks” university student younger than both of us to the CEO of the Luxembourg Stock Exchange, we shared eleven rides with sixteen people and one cat, with whom we communicated (or at least tried to) in five different languages.
The common denominator was friendliness. I was so majorly impressed by how open and trusting people were — even single women and people with whom we didn’t share any common language — that it inspired me to hitchhike as often as I can from now on.
#5: Everything about Barcelona
That hitchhiking trip ended in Barcelona, which immediately became the newest addition to my Favorite Places in the Entire World list (starring cities like Amsterdam, Krakow, Miami, and New Orleans). Barcelona is the perfect city to me: colorful old city streets and beautiful beaches against a hilly backdrop. It has all the cosmopolitan feel of other big European cities without the oppressive bustle and haste of Northern European metropolises, and great nature outings are easily doable as day trips. Lennart and I even rented a moped and scootered out to the surrounding hills, where we got off and hiked through a nearly uncharted woodsy area at the top of one of the hills.
In Barcelona I met some of the coolest people I’ve met all year. We hadn’t been able to find a host before leaving, so when we arrived we went to a Couchsurfing meetup (of which there are at least two or three every night of the week) and within a few minutes were chatting with the guy who would offer to host us that night. He was an Iranian exchange student and lived in a flat with a French girl, a German guy, a Dominican girl, and an American girl, and we spent the week drinking cheap beers with them and their friends on the beach.
Towards the end of the trip, I had my first ever sort of bad Couchsurfing experience, in which our host had an attack of bipolar insanity and literally without any reason decided we had stayed too long and weren’t welcome anymore. But even with that, my memory of Barcelona is entirely of social enjoyment, and after we were awkwardly thrown out, we spent the last day hanging out with our host’s flatmates and their friends over some cheap and delicious mojitos in a bar in their downtown neighborhood.
#6: Time traveling in the Balkans
I spent most of October weirdly obsessed with the Yugoslav Wars for no rational reason that I can remember. Earlier in the year I had found a great deal on a beach villa in Trogir, Croatia (the sort of thing I never do, unless it comes out to €60 per person for the week), so I started reading and watching some documentaries about the region’s recent history before I left, and by the time we arrived exploring the region’s historic sites and its scars from the wars was at the top of my priority list.
Croatia has the most beautiful coasts of anywhere I’ve been yet (that coming from a proud Floridian), but what really made this trip a highlight for me was going to Knin, where one of the first ethnic conflicts that started the Yugoslav Wars began, as well as just getting to know so many Croatians and Bosnians who had lived through the wars. In Sarajevo I sat in a smokey bar with some Bosnians, two European transplants from Italy and Slovakia, and a German guy I had met on the train there, and the locals exchanged such light jokes about Croats and Serbs and the strange ways all their neighbors talked that you would have never known one of the worst humanitarian crises of our lifetimes had taken place in this country and this city less than two decades ago.
Traveling through Croatia and Bosnia brings you in touch with eerily tangible history wrapped in comfortable and harmonious modernity, and Bosnia has cheap and delicious street food. The Balkans go near the top of my list of friendliest locals of anywhere I’ve traveled, and when you mix that with the beaches and coastal cities of Croatia and the mountains of Bosnia, I can think of few better places to spend a few weeks backpacking around.
#7: Seeing the whole world in London
In all my travels so far, London is the first proper huge world city I’ve been to. I’ve seen Chicago, Toronto, and Berlin, among others, but none of these compare to London; it’s apples and apple trees. The sheer number of people from different places speaking different languages and doing different things in this city blew me away, and even though I knew what to expect when I got there, I couldn’t stop gaping like the wide-eyed small town American tourist boy that I was.
My favorite thing about London was the diversity of language I saw there. Not only the thousands of different languages spoken in the city, but the hundreds of different Englishes, the different regional dialects and accents of those who had learned English later in life. I quickly discovered that there was no normal, that a posh British Received Pronunciation accent seemed no more commonplace than an r-tapping Eastern European sound or a vowelly-confusing West African melody. I like to hope that this human blend is what the city of the future looks like.
I spent nearly eight whole days in London, and I’m pretty sure I could go back eight more times and still have only seen and done a tiny portion of what’s there to be seen and done. Lucky for me it’s one of the most connected cities in the world, so I’m sure I’ll end up there again in the relatively near future.
Something about coming home was really refreshing this year in a way it’s never been before. While Leiden has become probably more home to me than anywhere now, and I do have plenty of family in Holland, I hadn’t seen my American family (the people I grew up with) in a whole year, so Thanksgiving and Christmas were extra special. That whole “absence makes the heart grow fonder” thing.
I went back to Tallahassee, the town where I studied, to participate in Florida State University Homecoming, which included a parade and a giant pep rally and an exciting football game all full of school spirit just like I fondly remember from my undergraduate days. Tallahassee was the last place I called home before Leiden, and I spent four of my best years there. Plus, the university is still probably the most breathtaking campus I’ve ever seen.
It was comforting to come back and see that, while things had changed a bit and I had changed more than a bit, it was all still there, mostly just like I’d left it. Some friends had moved on, some had stayed, and some I’ve lost touch with, but my university and the memories are still there and it still feels like home.
The last few days working on this post have been a great focused effort in remembering, considering, and appreciating all the things I’ve seen and done this year. At the end of any given year, I never quite feel like the same person who started that same year, and that personal growth comes largely from these kinds of experiences. Here are some of the things I took away from them in 2014:
#1: Travel can be cheaper than staying put.
One thing I hate hearing is “oh wow, I wish I could travel and do stuff like that….”
Sure, I’m a rational down-to-earth guy and I understand that people have commitments that make it less than ideal to drift around the world or take extended trips every couple months. This one is aimed especially at single twenty-somethings who aren’t yet married to their career and don’t own a house or have a kid or some other awful burden. But I also know plenty of people with said burdens who still manage to travel and live their lives too, so this reflection should in theory relate to anyone who wants to relate to it.
Staying put in one place means paying rent, utilities, cable and internet, buying lots of crap for your house, and paying to fix and replace that crap when it breaks. Low-key traveling (i.e. backpacking, not fabulous five-star resorts) costs as little as you want it to. In fact, the last two times I’ve had serious money problems (right after finishing both of my degrees), my solution was to break my lease and go travel. If you Couchsurf, visit friends/family/friends of friends, or camp, then your lodging is free, and if you pick the right hostels, you can pay $15-25 a night for a bed and included breakfast in the US or Western Europe, and in developing countries that can be less than $10 a night. Shop in grocery stores and use discount buses or hitchhike. Fly with Ryanair or JetBlue or Spirit or Easy Jet. Meet locals and learn about free stuff to do in town. Travel doesn’t have to be synonymous with beach hotels and fine dining.
In 2014, I got even better at traveling cheap, and I finally got it down to where travel is nearly always cheaper than sitting at home and binge watching reruns of Friends or Will and Grace. In the whole year I earned around €10,000 ($13,000), and I still did everything in this post and a lot more. Some time in the next month or so, I’ll make a post on how I travel so much on my nonexistent budget.
#2: The Couchsurfing community is the best one there is.
This is somewhat connected to the idea of cheap travel, but I’d do Couchsurfing even if I had to pay for it. I had my first Couchsurfing experience in May 2012 when I went to Leiden my first time, and this community has had a greater impact on my personal growth than any other I’ve ever been a member of.
In Morocco in January, I met Hassan, our Couchsurfing host in the desert, and we learned about how he and his mother and brother had grown up as nomads in the desert. Hassan had never been to school a day in his life, but had still taught himself good enough English (as well as Arabic and French) to spend two days sharing his stories with us. In France in August, the Couchsurfing community rescued my friend and me from sleeping outside a gas station. In October, when my money hadn’t transferred from my Dutch to my American bank account yet and I was without money for a day (stupid stupid stupid seriously wtf Jake), a Couchsurfing couple in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida picked me up at the airport, hosted me for the night, and took me to the bus station the next day.
I already learned this lesson the year before, but in 2014 I came to appreciate even more the community that let me connect to local communities in a way most tourists never do, to meet interesting and like-minded people everywhere I go and develop a worldwide network of friends.
#3: Leaving is fucking hard.
I hate hate hate saying goodbye, and I’m pretty awful at hiding that. Moving away from somewhere usually involves ingesting potentially life-threatening amounts of wine and producing copious quantities of tears and snot. Leaving Leiden always feels like the most dramatic TV breakup between those two characters who are so obviously meant for each other and why can’t they just see that and get over themselves because they’re just PERFECT together. I broke up with Leiden for the second time this year (was getting too serious for me, commitment issues here), complete with several goodbye parties and dramatic proclamations of how much I love everyone and everything and blah blah blah tears wine vomit.
This was the fourth time I’ve moved away from somewhere I’ve called home, and I think I’m finally starting to get used to it, but so far it’s not sucking any less. Expats and travelers always seem to be saying goodbye to someone — whether you’re leaving or they’re leaving — and the glass half full is that those friendships normally don’t die and now you’ve just got more friends spread over the whole world (and thus more cool places to go visit). But I do feel like a little piece of my inner naïve open-hearted child self dies every time. I’m positive that I’ve still got some major moves ahead of me in the coming years, and I can’t wait to see where they take me, but I’m also secretly looking forward to the day when I cool my heels for at least a few years and stop the rotating door of hellos and goodbyes.
(And yes, I do expect to get off the plane at the last minute and come running back to Leiden in the final scene of the series finale.)
#4: Going is way worth it.
And this is why I keep doing it. If I’d never left home, I wouldn’t have had four of the best years of my life in Tallahasssee with all the stimulating people I met and life-changing opportunities I had there. If I’d never left Tallahassee I’d have never met my friends in Leiden who made my world so much bigger and more exciting, and I’d be sitting somewhere in rural Connecticut drinking cheap beer and weeping over a PhD dissertation. And if I’d never left Leiden, I wouldn’t have had these last two months with my family, nor the chance to start the biggest trip of my life in 2015.
This time last year I was celebrating the new year in my first ever Couchsurfing host’s new appartment with all my best friends in Leiden. This year I’ll spend it pretty unremarkably somewhere in scary rural Northeast Florida with my family, and then next week I’ll head west to start my next big adventure overland from the US to Colombia. I hope everyone else’s year of travel was as stimulating, energizing, catalyzing, and thought-provoking as mine, and hopefully I’ll see some of you on the road in 2015!
What were your biggest takeaways from your travels or other experiences in 2014? Where did you go and what stuck with you there? Share your thoughts and questions in a comment below or in a tweet to me at @JakobGibbons. Happy New Year and safe travels!