There and Back Again
"That's one heck of a lake, yeah?" I asked the young New Hampshirite
seated next to me. We were on a United Airlines flight, doing a long loop over
Lake Michigan while we waited for permission to land.
"That's a lake?" he asked.
"Of course it's a lake. What did you think it was?"
"I don't know," he said, marveling at the endless expanse of blue.
"I've never been west of Vermont before."
I spotted my dad and my brother first; they were standing in the reception
area of the arrivals terminal. Behind them stood my dad's girlfriend Lisa, my
sister-in-law Wendy, my three nieces, my mother, and her boyfriend Loren. My
dad grinned when he saw me and then everyone was smiling and I quickened my
step and felt about as happy as I've ever been and then it was hugs all around
and my baby niece Ava was in my arms for the very first time.
My dad and Lisa gave me a ride into town and my mom, Loren, Rich, Wendy, and
the girls followed. Where we were going was meant to be a secret, but my mom
had leaked it a month earlier to lift my spirits after the drama in
me and Ava, the new model of Pugh
We were driving to one of my dad's apartments that he and Lisa had spent months
renovating and readying for me. What's more, they'd moved my possessions out
of my mom's basement and into the apartment. On top of this, they'd unpacked
some of my stuff, positioned the furniture, and even picked up a few pieces
that I was missing (such as a bed).
Parked in the off-street lot, I slung my backpack over my shoulders for what
might be the final time. I climbed a flight of wooden steps to the first floor
of a yellow brick house and stepped into the nicest apartment I've ever inhabited.
It was clean, freshly painted, and newly carpeted, with high ceilings, an open
layout, and a built-in longhaired grey cat named Dakota, a neighborhood stray
whom I've agreed to take in. The place was also bizarrely familiar: here was
my couch, throw rug, end tables, and lamps. Speechless, I fought back tears
as I toured the apartment.
Chips, dip, and a sandwich platter sat on the kitchen table; the fridge was
stocked with beer and juice. We ate, drank, and talked. My Aunt Sue joined us.
My nieces performed an acappella version of "We are the Pughs," an
original composition. I sliced a chocolate cake that had "Welcome Home
Mike" written upon it in blue frosting. My backpack sat in a heap in the
corner. I felt exhausted and wildly happy.
Dakota and me in the new apartment
After 409 days of waking up in hotels, hostels, tents, and other people's homes,
I woke up in my own bed, in my own room, in my own place. It was a wonderful
feeling. It was 5am. I stared at the ceiling for a long while and considered
There was plenty to do. Boxes required unpacking, the office needed organizing,
pictures wanted hanging, the cat demanded attention. I climbed out of bed, made
coffee, and began sorting through my stuff.
Before I left on my trip I'd purged many of my possessions. But clearly I hadn't
got rid of enough. My spirits sank as I sifted through the boxes. Rather than
providing comfort or reminding me of good times, the books, board games, clothing,
and bric-a-brac felt burdensome, like hundreds of little anchors that moored
me to a place I no longer wanted to be.
I set upon a vigorous round of purging. With new, streamlined sensibilities
I threw 50lbs of clothing into a pile and drove it to a charity organization.
The books were harder to let go of, but I filled two boxes with intellectual
trophies I had no intention of rereading and sold them at a used bookstore.
I tossed piles of old bills and bank records and other assorted nonsense into
the garbage. I immediately felt more liberated.
"You're in for a shock when you go home," an American couple I met
in South Africa told me. They'd lived in Guatemala for two years and described
their painful reentry. "I had a panic attack in the pet food aisle of a
grocery store," Carol told me. "The perversion of 4,000
brands of puppy chow dawned on me and, the next thing I knew, I was running
through the parking lot." (A nurse, Carol later explained that she'd dealt
with hundreds of malnourished children whose lives could have been saved by
any can of food in that aisle.)
I braced myself for serious reverse-culture shock, but it never really came. I attribute
this to three factors:
- South Africa helped ease me back into the west
- I stepped into an exceptional living situation
- I'm not broke
If I'd come home straight from Tanzania, moved into my mom's basement, and
been penniless, I'd be a basket case right now.
I got a cruel reminder of my former life during a drive into Chicago. I left
home at 3pm to avoid rush hour traffic but, as I neared the city, a light rain
began to fall, the sky went black, and traffic ground to a halt. Blinded by
SUV headlights in my rearview mirror, dazzled by the sea of brake lights before
me, I felt a familiar surge of anger and disgust. Soon I was cursing, pointing
at drivers whom I'd deemed inept, and generally acting a fool. What was
my problem? I'd just traveled around the world on some of the most inefficient,
unreliable vehicles imaginable. I encountered incredible delays; I endured epic
waiting times. And, like the locals, I did so with patience and good humor.
And here I was, in a comfortable car with a beautiful sound system, working
myself up over nothing.
It will be hard to retain the new patience, willingness to engage, and empathy
that I developed on this trip. I'll have to concentrate on keeping dismissive
thoughts and the hounds of consumerism at bay.
Two hours into the traffic jam, the situation took on metaphorical significance.
So many Westerners spend their whole lives scrambling up career, emotional,
and societal ladders, and where do they end up? Sitting motionless on jam-packed highways, in the rain, in the dark, utterly alone in $30,000 cocoons. As
I considered this I had anther realization: I was right there with them.
friends at the welcome home party
My cousin Justin threw me a homecoming party in Chicago and 40 friends welcomed
me home. "I can't believe it," many people said, "you look the
same!" I think they expected to see me with a beard, peg leg, or facial
tattoo. Looking at them, I felt the same way; everybody looked the same. Far
from being depressing (i.e. "I feel so different and everyone's the
."), I found this comforting. After all, it had only been a year.
Traffic jams aside, the ease and convenience of life in the USA just knocks
me out. An example: On my second day home I drove to Best Buy to check out cellular
phones. Twenty minutes later, I walked out of the store with a plan, a working
phone, and a phone number that I got to choose. How long would a similar chore
take in India?
My reentry into corporate America may be inevitable, but it doesn't have to
be immediate. I'm going to ease back into life at home. To support myself, I'll
do some freelance marketing work. But mainly, I'm going to concentrate on my
own writing and video projects.
Is the Vagabonding over?
Yep. I need to sit still for a while. But I've got a few trips left in me (the
Middle East, around Europe on a bicycle, drive from Chicago to Argentina, sail
around the Caribbean…), so we'll see how the freelancing and other projects
I'm greatly indebted to the people who helped make this project a success:
- My support and accounting team at home (i.e. my mother) snuffed a thousand
little fires for me. I love you, mom!
- Jared, the mystery flight attendant,
provided a (nearly) free ticket to Asia. His kindness taught me to trust strangers.
And he saved me over $1,000.
- Individual sponsors donated $1,305 toward
the project. Thanks folks – I hope you liked your gifts!
- Several friends helped me refine the site
design and some of my early Vagabonding ideas. Their creativity and talent
inspire me still.
- Everywhere I went I encountered local people who opened their homes, kitchens,
and hearts to me. People like Mr.
Andronico, S____, Castro,
Mthunzi, and Tony
had a tremendous impact on my trip.
- My fellow travelers fueled my
desires, affirmed my convictions, and bought me beer. Thank you Dave, Paul
and Marjoline (Burma); Jamie, Matt, Anna, Daphne, and Alberto (Laos); Mike,
Marianna, and Victor (Cambodia); Sebastian, Tkeshi, Roman, Judith, Daniel,
David and Johanna
(India); Terry, Ian,
and Jamie (Nepal); James and Heather (Egypt); Jennifer, Bernard, and Dr.
Scott (Uganda); Emmet, Lee, and Justine (Malawi); Martaan and Marin (Mozambique);
and Claire (South Africa).
- Visitors to this site left over 1,000 comments, providing insight, insult,
controversy, and comedy that kept Vagabonding fresh during the (sometimes
long) periods between updates. I can't express how motivating and comforting
it was to publish a story on the other side of the world and then read your
comments just hours later. Your feedback made me feel appreciated and like
I was never really alone.
Albert Camus said, "What gives value to travel is fear." When I look
back on my trip, I think one of the greatest benefits was that it forced me
to overcome a legion of small fears. I've emerged a stronger and more empathetic
person. My perception of what I can and cannot do has been completely redefined.
I've never felt more optimistic in my life.
Posted on December
12, 2003 11:46 AM
It's been an inspiration to follow you around the world, visiting places I've been with different eyes, and some many places I've never been at all. My feeling after a Carribean trip this summer was similar to yours upon returning home. I'm holding out hope that corporate life isn't inevitable, (even as I type this from my cubicle), and a permenant move is on the horizon. Maybe I'll see you in Carribean some day. Congratulations for what you've done, and thank you for sharing it.
Through a friend of yours here in Minneapolis, I was tipped to your venture about the time you were on that plane headed for Thailand. As certain as it has been an incredible year for you, it's been a hell of a ride tagging along virtually.
I want to thank you for sharing your journey with me and the world, as well as express my reverence for how impressive the Vagabonding site has been. A job well done!
Best of luck to you as you continue to acclimate again to life on American soil.
Do the Europe trip next...it would be great!
caleb, i think the europe trip might be a little underwhelming after this. i hitchhiked europe for eleven months and am now five months into my own around the world and a "big adventure in Europe" seems a little silly." maybe im just being a brat. Happy travels!
Been reading about your journey since your second day, your cousin Justin gave me a heads up. Glad your home safe and sound and thanks for the 12 months of enjoyment you've given me reading your site
Vagabonding.com gave me a place where I was free to dream. Every morning before work (while eating my cereal) I was able to venture to new lands, new perspectives, new fantastic point of views. I had a safe place to question who I was and what my "life's story" will be.
Daring to dream is half the battle.
that your head is in the clouds
Plugging your ears
to the pessimists, the closed minded, the jealous ones.
But what sweet joy to see that your dreams are no longer dreams, but REALITY.
I am forever grateful to your willingness to share your dream. It truly inspires.
Hey Mike my dear,
Wow what a trip you've had! I'm a bit green with envy, except for the mugging part. Hanging out with you was truly a highlight in Varanasi for us. Beer has never tasted better than it did that day on the ganges. Want to meet us this spring in Rajasthan? No, huh. How about a trip up to Vancouver? We'll have a room for you with walls that are thicker than paper, I promise. Cheers,
Johanna & David
Mike, thank you for sharing such a personal experience with candour, humour and style. It was a welcomed escape. You have a gift for photography, video and writing. Good luck with your next adventure.
Mike, I've really appreciated Vagabonding.com and have recommended it to lots of friends. Your stories, photos, and videos helped me dream and plan for a trip I was hoping to take to Ethiopia and India in 2004 (pending a grant). I received word a couple weeks ago that I got the grant, so I'm going! I think I'll be purchasing just about everything you listed in your "equipment" section. It has been a tremendous help to see what you pack along. I'm hoping to organize a section of my organization's website to upload notes/pics/video of my journey, having been inspired so thoroughly by you! Thank you very much for doing this. And I hope you'll keep doing it when you travel next! (BTW, I also appreciate the fact that, when I wrote you a couple months ago with a technical question about uploading video on the road, you answered it right away - and very helpfully - while you were travelling)
I followed your trip from day one and continued to follow your trip while I was on a RTW myself. Beautiful site and I can relate especially to your last journal. Good luck on your future. Watch out for that travel bug. It bites in fierce ways. Cheers!
Josh, San Diego
I had a mini attack when reading your final entry. It reminded me of all the times I had returned from trips overseas. The pain and discomfort of waking up in your own place knowing that that day would be like the next ...
You're an inspiration for another generation of travlers. Thank you for your time, energy, effort and kindness.
If you're ever in Minneapolis, look me up and I'll buy you a pint, give you a place to stay and sit for hours listening to your stories and viewing the photos that were never uploaded.
Maybe someday I can even hire you for some freelance work.
we have enjoyed being with you on your marco polo, and hope to be with you in your new 'avtar' -- let us know.
Welcome back! It's been a pleasure following you around the world. Personally, your travel writing has really helped me keep a sense of perspective about my own life.
This site is why they invented the web. It's simply the best use of the technology I have ever seen. What you have accomplished would have been great had you done it in your office, but to accomplish this while up in a tree in Africa being attacked by an elephant is remarkable!
Thanks for keeping me inspired and impressed throughout your journey. You've had the trip that many will only dream of, and it's been great feeling like a passenger.
Your work is first-rate. Please keep this site accessible to help us get through a long, cold winter!
We are glad that you are home safe. We enjoyed following your journey. Thanks for all that you taught us and we can't wait to hear some of your stories. Merry Christmas
(Wendy's nephew in Texas)
Mike: I'm glad you're back safe and somewhat sad since I looked forward to your latest installment on your site.
When I returned from 2 years in the Far East I was truly depressed for weeks because nothing changed at home while I was away. The time away felt so unreal.
I enjoyed traveling along with you (from home). Thanks.
Keep me on your list for your next adventure.
Thanks Mike! Hope life after is just as good as it was out there!
Mike -- I have never posted anything to the web like this, but I felt compelled to tell you a couple of things.
1. You will never understand how much your trip / this site effected me unless we have a conversation face to face.
2. The site is amazing -- keep it up for as long as possible.
3. Write a book.
4. After all of this, I feel like I know you -- I've been on this trip with you from the beginning. Thanks for sharing your experience so openly and honestly. I like the way that you see the world.
Also, drop me an email if you are ever in New York City. We can meet up and share our experiences of Calcutta.
it's been a treat and a thrill following your trips, mike. and how lovely to have a 'custom built' living spot waiting for you when you got back! thanks for sharing, and hope to follow your future adventures as well.
Thanks for the fantastic and compelling journey you've taken us all on. I can't wait to see what you do next, and I'm certain you're destined for success in whatever you decide to turn your hand to.
Oh, and thanks for the postcard - what a nice touch to a perfect site :)
just wanted to add my thoughts on how much i've enjoyed following your adventure. entertaining and inspiring. thanks for the great website.
'Sitting motionless on jam-packed highways, in the rain, in the dark, utterly alone in $30,000 cocoons.'
Well put - and potentially heartening to the forestry reserve official (I think that's what he was) that you spoke with in Malawi.
Thanks for a damn good ride. Shame it had to end (for now) - but it's almost worth it to see you in some new clothes. Hell, maybe you do have a chance with PJ...
Charlie in Taipei
This is the first time Im posting a comment on your site though I have been following it for quite a while now.
I wish I had your kind of courage to throw up my life and travel! Its something I have often wanted to do. I hope you get back to your "normal" life soon - if it was me I could probably never do it....
Being from India I feel totally compelled to tell you how long it takes to get a phone and connection in India - exactly 30 minutes!! But yes it takes about 2 hours to activate the connection....:)
Anyway... heres wishing you all the very best and if you visit India again... drop me an email!!
What a strange sensation it must be.. to be both welcomed back and sorely missed, to say hello and goodbye.. in the very same breath.
Suerte y amor a usted.
mike. great last post. glad you are settling in, albeit dumping half your material possessions as you do. ;)
sorry i missed your party. keep me updated on the photo exhibition.
and if you're sitting home thinking you need a good chicago book to read check out 'the time traveler's wife' by audrey niffenegger. i swear it's the best book i've read this year!!!
Your return was as fascinating to read as your journey. You are very lucky to have good family and friends who anchor your life, and give you the freedom to travel. I always imagined that travelling the way you did would lead to an overwhelming feeling of anticlimax when arriving home, but clearly not. I caught up with my nephew in the UK a couple of weeks ago, who came back from a similar trip about a year ago. When I said that to him he said that he came back really energized and buzzing with ideas - some of which have already become reality. So I hope that you have the same success as he, and that you have a wonderful Christmas and that 2004 is as rewarding as the last year and a half has been! Definitley will miss the vicarious travelling, even though I found your site late into your adventure.
Mike, I was in Cairo a couple days ago, and met a juice-bar owner. he asked of my travels and mentioned my rtw, and he said excitedly, "do you know Mike Pugh?" and pulled out one of your cards. A small world. weird, huh?
Truly an inspiration!
Enjoy your well earned break, and then head out for more!
Much like the NH-ite next to you on your return trip home, this NH-ite has not seen much of the world either. Thanks to you, I've seen parts of it I never anticipated!! Thank you deeply for the ride that I had only previously seen in my vicarious Ntl Geographic readings!!!
I hope that you are able to keep this site up for a while now that you have returned safely. It remains the best travel related site on the Internet and should serve as a model for anyone who is interested in doing something similar.
Thanks for the hours of enjoyment! Best of luck in your future endeavors.
Great adventure. I was blessed to read about your travel, your ideology and your willingness to explore.
So whatever happened to your lifebook? Did you ebay it?
Yep, I ebayed the Lifebook for $1,250 - and upgraded to a PowerBook.
Viva la Macintosh!
This will be the first time I have posted to your website as well, but I wanted to let you know how much of an inspiration you have been to me and how your site has given me further insight in creativity when it comes to creating a virtual tour of my memory bank. I have been saving for 3 months now to take a similar trip as you did. I just recently graduated college from UGA so I dont happen to have the financial backing as it seems you might have. Since graduation I have been working nonstop to earn enough money. Its a bit coincedental that I am writing you this note on a computer that I recently purchased on ebay that was very similar to the one you used its a P5020 Fujitsu; so far im really enjoying it. Today is the first time I have viewed your site but I feel like I was there throughout the duration of it. I was so impressed that I took it to my parents and we wached and read almost every upload that you created. What a ride!!! Well other than complementing you on a job more than well done I have so many questions regarding my own around the world trip that I plan on departing for in the next 2 or 3 months depending on my ability to make enough money. If you wouldnt mind and find that you have a few moments to point a fellow traveler in the right direction, I would so greatly appreciate the insight. I have questions regarding your overland routes, the safety and cost of them. I also have questions regarding how you purchased your plane tickets, where you purchased it from and how much you paid because I cant seem to find anything less than 5000 dollars for what I want to do. I have questions regarding the safety of your equipment and how you managed to keep these items on you at all times or did you often leave them in the hotel room? I have questions concerning the safety of traveling in and around Israel and surrounding areas. What about traveling alone, because I will doing this. I have questions regarding weather or not you had wireless internet on your computer and if so where were you able to use it....airports, hotels... Also I was wondering why the video feeds are such poor quality, did you do this so people with bad iternet connections could connect faster or was it the slow connections from your end that caused you to decrease the quality so that you could upload them. What software did you use to make this site. Im so sorry to bomard you with this many questions but I think you are a genious and this site could not be any more professional and beautiful and I desparetely would love to pick your brain that is full of answeres to the myriad questions that haunt me on a daily basis. I would love to talk if and when you had a chance so my email is [email protected] If you think talking on the phone would be an easier means of communication please let me know I would be happy to call at your convienence of course. Well for now I will end this but I want you to know that your hard work has truly given so many people who would have otherwise never know you the wherewithall and encouragement to become a citizen of the world rather than thier hometown. Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you soon, Sam
i just wanted to say that i loved reading your adventures, you are truely remarkable. thank you for sharing your year plus long adventure with the world, it was great fun to read and best of luck in the future.
Great site! Just finished reading all your travels!
Just noticed you wrote in the last article : How long would a similar chore take in India?
I'm originally from India but have lived in US / Canada for the past 7 years. I spent the past 1 year(2002-2003) however living back there. It took me exactly 20 minutes (10 mins to fill the forms and the guy to photocopy my identity) to activate my cell phone connection (working number - which I got to choose). And the phone worked instantly. Felt compelled to tell you!
Also wanted to thank you for rekindling the travel bug in me, which had died after I graduated from univ 2 yrs ago. Especially traveling to Cambodia which I had planned extensively while in college but the plans failed.
Another 2 girls want to hear more....before we embark on a similar journey. Sam [above] pretty much summed up everything we wanted to say, and if you lived in maine we'd want to buy you a pint and ask for advice in person. So, in essence, want to chat "world travel"? again?
If you get a chance, drop a note...
Congrats on a great trip-
Valerie and Anne
I have also been reading you site for a while. You are an amazing writer and photographer. I am very glad that you were willing to share your experiences. If you ever want to visit the San Francisco Bay Area, you are welcome to stay on my sofa bed. I will buy you beer or some wine from nearby.
I spent a semester in London (about 5 months), and I loved it. I have also travelled around much of the U.S. I love travelling, and I will do some more, but I need to finish paying off my grad school loans. So, in the meantime, it was great to read about your trip.
This is a great idea, one that I have pondered many times. I am thinking more seriously about it. Thanks, man.
We all loved the adventure. How about an update on where life post-Vagabonding has taken you? Things seemed a little up in the air in your last entry. I'm curious about how you've landed on your feet since returning and what you're doing now.
Ah the joys of Americana: Sitting motionless on jam-packed highways, in the rain, in the dark, utterly alone in $30,000 cocoons. As I considered this I had anther realization: I was right there with them.
Times like that make me wanna head back to Uganda, or at least Western Kenya. There live people like Puce, a farmer I met who, when I asked what he would do if he won the Kenyan lottery, answered with: I would buy more land for my shamba
Not 'move to nairobi' or even 'buy a tv', Puce is happy with his simple life.
May we all find such happiness.
Hi - I've done alot of independent traveling in the world during the last decade. I saw you may drive through south america. In 1999 i bought a camping van in Santiago Chile and spent 7 1/2 months touring all of Chile & western Argentina. No problems with cops in Chile, though you should have an international license to be safe.
Your site reflects what others day dream about. I'm a small time traveler, mostly work related.
I started my own little travel blog hoping to provide travel info as I learn about other countries.
I love to read your travelogue.
In three weeks I'm starting a year long rtw trip with my 12 year old daughter / my husband is beginning with us for the first two months/.
We are setting up a simple web page for placing pictures and notes.
How easy or difficult was it to find internet cafes on the road? Or did you have your laptop with you?
Sincerely, Jolanta from Toronto
Sorry to bother you with the question before. I just read about your equipment.
We'll just have to rely on notebooks and internet cafes. Jolanta
I loved reading your travelogue. I'm curious, now that it's been 7 months since your trip, how has it affected you? How easy has it been to adjust to American life?
Hello, Congratulations for yours so nice photos and life.
I am from Brasil. (city=Recife State=PE, Pernanbuco)
And I just bought one of yours nice photos. But it is from the year 1985. And I don,t know where did you make it. The photo shows a man between a two old houses and he is pushing a hand car whit a lot of old things on. And the street is very narow. The photo it is made in black and white colors.
It is so beautiful photo.
I will be very happy if I could know where it is?
So please could you write me back.
Thank you very much
And sorry about my Englih.
And if you want to come to be some time in Recife. We will be very happy in have you in ours home.
Did you heart about a so beautiful beach called PORTO DE GALINHAS.? It is very near from where I live.
You sight inspires me. When I traveled to Sri Lanka, enjoying some arrack on the roof-top of a small hotel in Kandy, I talked to a Japanese woman. She was there to renew her visa to India. Traveling alone(left her husband home) and writing a site similar to yours in Japan, she was totally supported in her travel by travel-shy Japanese.
She would go to Western Union to get her money from her unknown fans and keep going. That was so Japanese, and we both thought no one in America would sponsor like this...and low and behold I see you have some fans who do...and I can see why. Bravo!
An amazing trip, and an amazing site!
You were already back in the US before I found your site, but it was (and is) still exciting and fresh as I read through your trip from beginning to end. Both entertaining and enlightening!
Definately write the book. You have the journalism angle down in your site. The book would have to be the personal stuff... maybe a little scary to expose yourself like that, but I'm sure it would be riveting reading: You have the gift of writing!
I'll be watching for further travels.... Good luck.
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