Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Start of Trip - Toronto and Philadelphia

June 3, 2007. After saying good-bye to my parents and a round of hugs and photos, I finally walk through the US customs door at the Toronto Pearson International Airport. The automatic door closing behind me, I step in line at the US customs. Again, I was jittery with excitement. Although not my first backpacking trip, this would be my first long-term backpacking trip, scheduled for almost two and a half months. Looking around me, I see families, loving couples, and other backpackers with their gear in line, some looking fresh and excited, some looking worn and tired.

Clearing customs with no problems, I found my way to the gate. I was very early, just like my first backpacking . In fact, I was at the same gate I used when flying out for my very first backpacking trip just a few months before. I had brought my entire 60 litre pack with me, causing many people to scan me with curious eyes. But I was in good company. I see other people with similar packs, waiting impatiently for their flights. I had refused to check my bags in with US Airways and they had lost my bags too many times when I was flying through Philadelphia. I walk to a pay phone, and with my pack beside me, I have a long conversation with my parents before I leave.

Finally, after what seemed to be forever, my flight was called. Walking out of the terminal, I see the jet in front of me. After detaching the small upper portion of my pack, I place the larger, bulky section on the luggage rack, walk to the plane and up the steps. I pause briefly before the steps to feel the ground of my home before setting off. I knew that I would not be back on this continent for a long time. It is difficult to describe the feeling at the start of what you know is going to be an adventure far away from home, so I won't even try it. Just know that the entire first day is always such a wonderful experience, the excitement and anticipation reaching a climax, knowing that you'll soon be in a new land with new cultures to explore, where the rules are different, and where you will meet many very interesting people with very interesting views and experiences to share.

During the approach to Philadelphia, I hear the announcements of which gates the connecting flights are. Since this is a small plane, the list only contains connections for present passengers. When they announced Madrid, I suddenly feel another surge in excitement, as I knew that announcement was for me. Suddenly, everything seems to real. I thought about all of the interesting places I will soon be in - Madrid, Morocco, Southern Spain.... Arriving at Philadelphia International Airport, I immediately find a pay phone to update my parents on my progress. I end up in a long conversation, as I had four hours to kill before my next flight. I had booked an early flight into Philadelphia since I didn't want to be late for my flight to Madrid, else I would have to wait another day before the next flight to Madrid.

In the next couple of hours, I purchase some food, and sit at the food court I am now so familiar with from my interview flights and my trip during the summer. It feels good to be back in the airport not on the way to a stressful interview with homework piling up. While enjoying my food, I continue to fill out a "cheat sheet" I'm making that contains important vocabulary for the different languages that I will encounter - Spanish, Arabic, French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Portuguese. I also include some information on social habits, etiquette, safety and common scam information, as well as special foods and drinks for each country and area I will be visiting - Spain, Morocco, Gibraltar, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Portugal. I had brought a stack of printed pages from Wikipedia, and went to work transferring the important information to my two cheat sheets.

Finally, after a lot of studying, including a crash course in reading Greek, Cyrillic, and special Turkish and Romanian characters, I finish my cheat sheet. There are some holes in my language cheat sheet, but figure I can fill those holes up later on during the trip. It had been getting closer to my flight, and I was glad I had something to pass the time with, else the anticipation would have made me mad. Taking the shuttle, I walk over to the international terminal, which was now familiar to me since my last backpacking trip, brining back memories of my excitement during my first ever trip without my family.

After a final call to my parents to tell them I've made it onto my flight to Madrid, I board the plane and find my seat. There is ample storage to place my giant bag in, which was a huge relief to me.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Prologue

I've been looking forward to finally returning home from university for a long time. I graduated from Cornell University, with a double major in Computer Science and Engineering Physics, magna cum laude, and with honours. It has been a tough four years, and coming home for good from school was a great relief. At the same time, I feel saddened that I've grown up and have to start facing the real world soon. But before that, I have one more big adventure ahead of me. You see, I had gone on a three week backpacking trip across Northern Europe and Scandinavia in the winter, and was very much changed by that experience. Wanting to relive my days of wandering around, meeting interesting people and learning to see the world in different ways, I decided to take a long, two and a half month trip to some more exotic destinations. So although I was ecstatic to be finally coming home, I only had a few short days to savour my success at home, as I needed to prepare for my long journey ahead.

June 3, 2007. Once again, I had my parents drive me to the airport. Although we had done this once in the winter, there was still an air of excitement, anticipation, and sadness that I will be leaving for so long. My parents and I knew that we would see each other for a long time. My parents were especially worried since they knew that I would be in a foreign country, with no way to locate me if our lines of communications were cut. This is why they "decided" that I should carry a GSM phone so that I would be able to contact my parents from time to time. After a few photos, I walked through the door to enter US customs on my way to Madrid through Philadelphia.

Months of planning had gone into this trip. It had taken months for me to finally decide on where I wanted to go for my big post-graduation adventure. I had applied for English teaching jobs in Mongolia and Myanmar, a volunteering program in Cambodia, a English Wilderness camp instructor position in Siberia, and had considered wandering around South Asia. But since I am moving to the San Fransisco Bay Area after summer, I decided to leave Asia for the future, and take advantage of being close to Europe while still on the East Coast.

After coming up with the idea of a Mediterranean trip, I had been spending my time researching places to go and planning a route. That was the easy part. The hard part was that a few of my friends, with some encouragement from me, had also decided to join me for parts of my trip. It took a lot of negotiations to decide on mutually agreed upon routes and dates. The cumulation of the negotiations resulted in a slightly changed route than what I had originally planned. Instead of visiting Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Sicily, Malta, Tunisia, and Algeria, I was going to visit (re-visit) Italy, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania.

Side story: After agreeing to go to Greece, I had been looking for cheap tickets from Eastern Europe to Lisbon, where I had an inexpensive flight home. I found a ticket for $12, including taxes, from Bucharest, but after all of the negotiations with my friends were done, it had jumped to $200! Just shows that you have to book a ticket well in advance! Anyway, because of this, I'll have an excuse to visit Romania, a country I have been curious about but never had a good reason to visit.

More amazingly, the negotiations resulted in having me arrive in Madrid, spending the first day by myself, then meeting up with a friend of mine. Throughout the trip, I will be meeting up and parting ways with 4 of my friends. I would have a guaranteed travel buddy all of way up to Sofia, Bulgaria, from where I would be on my own to explore Romania and Portugal. After many changes in the timing and route, my friends and I finally agreed upon the following way points:

June 3: Fly out of Toronto, Canada to Madrid, Spain. Start Trip!
June 5: Meet up with Felix in Madrid, Spain.
June 7: Flight from Madrid to Ouarzazate, Morocco.
June 11: Meet up with Lori in Marrakesh, Morocco.
June 23: See Lori off on her flight home from Barcelona, Spain.
June 27: Meet up with Andre in Nice, France.
Depart with Felix around Nice so that he can visit Florence before returning to Munich.
July 12: Meet up with David in Athens, Greece.
Visit the Greek islands during this time.
July 21: Send off Andre on his flight home from Athens, Greece
July 29: Send off David from Sofia, Bulgaria.
Aug. 7: Fly out from Bucharest, Romania to Lisbon, Portugal.
Aug. 10: Fly out from Lisbon, Portugal to Toronto, Canada. End Trip!

While I was excited for the upcoming trip, at the same time, I wished my departure day would never come. I loved the anticipation, as I knew that this would be a once in a lifetime experience, my last real adventure before entering "the real world." Once my departure date comes, I will never experience the anticipation of waiting for the start of my very first long-term backpacking trip, with no responsibilities and nothing to worry about except for me, my friends, and my well being for the sake of my family.