Where to even begin? When I was 23 I had yet to even step foot into an airport let alone a plane. That was only 2 years ago. This story should entitled, "Liftoff: From 0 to United Platinum." In all seriousness though this past year has been the wildest and most fulfilling year of my entire life. I took a job after college graduation that was going to allow me to travel and experience the world while working. I signed into a two year program, this job is now nearing it's end. During my time I was able to visit 21 countries in just under a year. I wanted to write a bit of a memoir of the last year of my life and how it was possible and what I was all able to see and experience.
My first stop on my journey was Southern California. I was living in the heart of Orange County. You know the place where you see all the reality TV shows and everyone spends all day on the beach? Yeah, there. This was my first experience really living away from home. I probably spent my first three weeks there on the beach every single night after work just soaking in the experience of having the ocean so close, especially since it was the heart of summer when I arrived. After a few weeks we started to really venture out and try to see as much of California as we could with only a car at our disposal. With weekend trips to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite National Park, Death Valley National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, Venice Beach, Santa Monica, San Diego, San Francisco, Lake Mono, Lake Tahoe, Joshua Tree National Park, Hollywood, Oceanside, Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Alabama Hills, Big Sur, and Monterrey you could really say I made the most of my time in California. Car camping was the only way that this was possible on the budget we had, but it was well worth it for the experience even if it meant A LOT of rough nights of sleep. I was able to experience some of the best food I had ever had in my life, arguably the best Mexican food in the USA as well. The weather was beautiful year round, I remember on my birthday for the first time having the windows down and it being 80 on December 30th! I never dreamed of things like this living in Wisconsin my whole life. This was also where I truly felt my passion for photography kicked off. I wasn't the best but I sure did put a lot of effort into learning during my time in California. Unfortunately my time in California was only a short six months and I was to move back to the Chicagoland area for my next assignment...
Moving back home felt like the end of the world at the time. After living in Southern California you feel kind of spoiled (especially returning in the heart of winter). I tried to make the most of my time in Chicago. I was able to befriend some local photographers who took me under their wings and really pushed me to be the best photographer I could be at the time. Every Saturday morning you could find us at North Ave beach shooting sunrise regardless of the conditions. I took a break from traveling the country for a few months. Come May though I figured it was time to venture out. I ended up exploring all over Washington and Oregon and was able to see the only parts of the West Coast I really had not seen yet. After this right when I was informed I would be spending the next six months in Europe, I decided to head to the most American place on earth, New York City. Since I lived at home during this period it was easy to save up a little money to travel. I also decided to upgrade my camera while I was home and moved over to Sony which is what I shoot to this day. I ended up really valuing my time spent back home as it let me recharge and spend time with friends and develop my photography skills a bit more before heading over to Europe.
My first time out of the country, and it only took 24.5 years. I was moving to Germany, where some of my family's heritage was. Upon landing I felt like I was in a whole new world, no one spoke English, my cell phone didn't work, the signs were in German. It was all so overwhelming. The first few weeks were some of the roughest I have had in my days. Feeling uncomfortable and trying to adjust to day to day life in a place where I struggled to communicate and didn't know anyone. This would become such a commonplace thing in my life that I look back and laugh upon those times. I lived in a town not too far from Frankfurt, Germany which was perfect for traveling all around Europe with it being so central. I probably traveled almost every single weekend that I lived in Europe, there might be 2-3 exceptions, but I wanted to make the most of my time in Europe. In my first month I visited Venice, Italy, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Madrid, Spain, Prague, Czech Republic, and London, England. Needless to say my world changed in what felt like overnight. I had never dreamed of seeing Big Ben, El Clasico, a "coffee shop", and a city on water ALL WITHIN A MONTH. This was just the beginning too! After these trips I went to Paris, France, Vienna, Austria, London, England (again), and Munich, Germany for the famous Oktoberfest. It's hard to believe that this was reality at a certain point. Drinking a few steins with friends at Oktoberfest was something I only dreamed of from watching movies. Seeing the Eiffel Tower light show at night and the Louvre exhibits in person are experiences I truly believe everyone should have.
So that has to be it right? He couldn't possibly have traveled so much. Although I was burnt out, constantly traveling, trying new foods, immersing myself in new cultures, this was just the beginning. I ventured to a place that I wasn't even sure was on Earth, Iceland. My friend flew over to meet me and we lived out of a SUV for 9 days and boy what a 9 days it was. Seeing everything from black sand beaches to the northern lights (a spiritual experience trust me) my mind was sufficiently blown by this other worldly place. After this I returned to meet my parents in Germany before traveling over to Zermatt, Switzerland where the world famous Toblerone logo, i mean Matterhorn is. We enjoyed a few days of hiking and site seeing together before heading to Geneve and then back to Germany. I had never been on a vacation with my parents so this is a trip that really stood out to me and I will cherish forever. The following week I headed to Italy where I would explore Cinque Terre, the famous 5 colorful towns on the Italian coast. Arguably the most beautiful coastline I have ever seen which such cool architecture to boot. After this I finally took a well deserved two week break and slept my life away. This wasn't the end though, as after this we headed to Hallstatt, Austria in the Alps. A serene mountain town known for its picturesque views and salt mines. We learned an important lesson here with my drone, Bobby (didn't we Michelle?). Following this trip I flew home to spend a few days with my family to recharge from the work stress that had been adding up (don't forget I was working full time through all of this). After returning to Europe I went to Copenhagen, Denmark and had some exquisite food while taking in the beautiful colorful Nyhavn harbor. Next stop was Stockholm, Sweden where I explored the world's longest Art Exhibition in the Stockholm metro. Things were coming to a close now and I had to make the most of my last few weeks. For Christmas a coworker had convinced me to take the biggest leap that I had so far, Dubai. Really if you had told me I would be in Dubai on January 1, 2017 I would've laughed and said "but why?" Dubai brought me some of the most breath taking views and cultural experiences of the year. From the slow fog that covered the city to the beautiful Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque (and my hilarious cab driver for the day 'Pablo Escobar'). I met some awesome photographers on my hotel's roof in Dubai whom I still talk to and hope to visit again. My last trip would be to Brussels and Brugges, Belgium. Both places had EXCELLENT food and beer. I would be lying if I said I didn't indulge in these things during my time.
So that was a fun SIX MONTHS?!? It's hard to believe after typing this all out that all of that occurred in 6 months of my life. I am confident I will look back on this 6 months of my life and wonder how I did it all. I really hope everyone gets an experience like this once in their life. Next stop, Singapore!
Singapore was my next destination that I would call home. After sleeping for 16 hours straight I woke up and hopped off the plane only to be welcomed by the warmest air I had ever felt in my life. That's when I knew I was home. I settled into Singapore and explored the country for my first 8-10 weeks really trying to take in the culture and photography as much of Singapore as I could. Singapore really opened me up to a variety of foods that I would've never had in the Western world. I met some of the best photographers and people here as well and hope these people remain close friends throughout my life.
My first trip took me to Japan. I decided to head to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka for my first trip outside of Singapore. This trip I took solo and quickly got out of my comfort zone while in Tokyo. Having some of the most amazing dishes in the local Japanese Ramen and Yakitori whilst trying to communicate via mostly hand gestures and broken English. Tokyo was the city I imagined I would've dreamed about as a kid. Full of video game and technological influence and bright neon night life. This was contrasted by Kyoto being the more traditional city with lots of historical and cultural things to do and see. Walking through the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Fushimi Inari were bucket list items I am so glad to have checked off. I even managed a day trip to Osaka to check out the shopping and Dotonbori area that is packed with neon goodness. All while getting to try the Japanese bullet train and be accompanied by the amazing people of Japan.
About a month later I was finally able to experience the wondrous world of Hong Kong. My close buddy Jethro (@jethoon) and I traveled to Hong Kong together so that he could show me around since he had been numerous times before. Hong Kong was nothing short of amazing. We had dim sum almost on a daily basis while experiencing some of the coolest rooftop views the city had to offer. We hiked up to Suicide Cliff and to Lion's Rock as well which were two cool experiences that had epic views to offer at the end to reward our hard work. We met an insane amount of locals during our time in Hong Kong whom are all both kind and hilarious individuals that I still talk to. Hong Kong was definitely one of if not my favorite place I have been to so far in my life. We even managed a day trip to Macau which was a unique experience I may never get again. I highly recommend this trip if you have a spare day in Hong Kong. It's a formerly Portuguese controlled territory that is located about an hour boat ride from Hong Kong.
For my last final ride we made a trip to Shanghai, China. Not without its speed bumps as we were delayed almost 24 hours... We eventually made it though and our journey began. We started off by hitting some classic spots after having an amazing breakfast at Mr. Pancake (Shanghai has really good Western food). We met with locals and conquered some rooftops we some epic views of the city. Shanghai has one of my favorite sets of buildings in the world. We had some close calls but in the end it was a lot of fun and worth it. Between all the shooting and food, Shanghai was a heck of a time and I wish I had more time to spend there. I will definitely be back to experience more. China is an epic place that will surely push you outside your comfort zone.
After returning home for a few weeks, I have had some time to reflect on the past couple of years. Now that I have written this all down I realize just truly how surreal this experience has been. Twenty-one countries in just shy of a year and almost half of the states in the US. I was able to do this because of my job, which relocated me to various parts of the world for two years moving every six months. Lots of budgeting and roughing it had to be done to make it all happen but I would do it again 10x over. It changed how I see the world and who I am as a person tremendously. I think it's time for a short break from traveling. Closing this chapter in my life hasn't been easy.