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VJ-Day 2020

A look back at where this journey began.

Salango Ecuador
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FARMINGTON, New York- August 15th passed yet again — the anniversary of the day that I went abroad for the first time; the real beginning of this vagabond journey.

It is also the anniversary of Victory over Japan Day, when Imperial Japan surrendered, ending WWII. V-J Day.

V-J Day: Vagabond Journey.

While I bounced around the east of the USA for a year before I went abroad, it was that first trip to Ecuador that really put me on the tracks that I’ve been rolling down for the past 20 years.

I can remember my first day of international travel clearly. I was 19 years old and had just moved out of my student apartment at Florida Atlantic University and attempted to walk to the bus stop carrying way too much stuff. I had a huge Army bag that stood up to my shoulders that was completely full. I was a bit on the scrawny side back then, and I seriously couldn’t carry the fucking thing. I had to rest every few steps as fatigue set in, and I began worrying that I was going to miss my bus … which would have meant that I would miss my train … which would have meant …

It was my first problem of international travel. And, as it would turn out, it was the first time that I was serendipitous saved by a random stranger — a couple of young dudes that I never met before drove up, laughed at me, and offered me a lift. I was just in time for the bus.

At the train station I walked out to the end of the platform, dumped out my bag, and proceeded to throw my possessions off the ledge. I parted ways with sleeping bags, clothes, and just about everything else that I could conceivably part with.

I was about to learn my first lesson in packing light: there is no reason to leave you country with anything as you can pretty much buy everything wherever you go. If you are short a shirt, just buy a shirt. Paying a little more money here and there beats missing a flight because you can’t move fast enough under the burden of your own gear.

I rode the train down to the airport in Ft. Lauderdale and endeavored to do something for the first time that I would make a regular habit of throughout my travel career: sleep in the airport. I wasn’t being cheap then; I seriously had no money. I went over to the gate where my flight would be boarding in eight or so hours, laid down across a few chairs, and reveled in thoughts of the day.

Objectively speaking, my day had sucked: I packed up and moved out of an apartment, I had to be given a lift by random dudes because I couldn’t really carry my bag, I threw half my possessions off the side of a train station platform, and now I was sprawled out across three chairs in an airport, uncomfortable as fuck, because I couldn’t afford a room in a hotel.

But I loved every minute of it. I didn’t know what was going on, I courted chance and folly, and up for simply finding out what was going to happen next. I believe it was in that moment that I really became a traveler.

But my gleeful meditation was about to be broken by a shortish, plumpish, 30-something year old bearded dude wearing a casual brown button down shirt and military fatigues. He asked if I was going to the archaeology field school in Ecuador. I said I was. He said he was one of the instructors. He then asked what I was doing. I explained. He took me back to his room with him at the airport hotel and gave me the extra bed.

The following day I met the other students at the airport. I became friendly with this rich girl who proudly told me that she attended the same high school as Hillary Clinton. We sat together on the plane, talked about dinosaurs or something. She said she really wanted to be a paleontologist but felt archaeology was close enough. It was my impression that it didn’t matter what she did in life; her dreams were playthings. There is often little passion where there is little struggle.

A few hours later we were descending into Bogota. I looked out the window of the plane and saw mountains for the first time. It was one of the few times in my life that I couldn’t really compute what I was observing. It was nothing like I’d imagined — the bright green valleys chopped up into neat agricultural squares, the jagged peaks. I was merely going to another country but for me it was like descending down upon another planet. I’m from the farm country of Western New York. It was the year 2000, the internet was an infant. I truly didn’t know what I was getting into. And I liked it.

We merely changed flights in Colombia, which at that time was in the middle of a war against drug trafficking insurgents and had become the place in South America where only the badasses went. I wasn’t yet that badass. I was heading to Guayaquil. But after landing it was difficult for me to imagine how Colombia could look any worse. The place wasn’t at war but looked like a war zone anyway. “Welcome to Guaya-hell,” someone joked.

There was a throng of beggar kids out in front of the hotel we were going to. I stupidly gave one a dollar and was scolded by my Ecuadorian professor. “If you do that then more will come.” She explained later that the kids actually work for the gangs … Information that I would often repeat over the next decade to similarly stupid newbie travelers.

But I sort of smile about this now. My first financial exchange of international was giving money to a child beggar.

After that the rich girl came to my room.

So that’s travel …

**
I never got bored of it. Not once. I don’t know of anything that anyone could do for 20 years and not get tired of it. I’m sitting here now at my parent’s house in Rochester after five months of very little travel. Sure, I took two trips to Mexico since the pandemic began, I went to Florida, I went to Rochester twice, but it’s not even close to my usual pace of movement. Traveling now just seems so stupid. What are the rules? Nobody knows. Do you need a test before you go there? Is it a red country or a green one? Are the airlines selling tickets for flights they know won’t really leave just to pocket the money? The flight isn’t canceled, it’s permanently delayed. What the fuck. That doesn’t sound like an adventure; it sounds like an annoyance.

So I’ve just been waiting it out. I no longer really travel for kicks, so I’d have to arrange projects and interviews. Doing this seems like a nightmare when it’s so unclear where I can actually go and where … and if everything will change by the time my flight touches down.

**

Old travel notebooks

Muay Thai shorts from Bangkok, a pouch from Ecuador, and a stack of my old travel notebooks.

I have a stack of old notebooks in my closet at my parents’ house. I wrote with pen and paper for the first five years of my travels. Inside those notebooks is a person that seems very different than the one holding them in his hands. I have to wonder what the Wade in the notebooks would have with the pandemic shutting down travel. Would he just sit around working on big projects waiting for the bullshit to pass? Probably not. He would probably be lost in Patagonia, oblivious.

Filed under: New York, Travel Stories, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3618 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

24 comments… add one

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  • Puneet August 27, 2020, 8:08 pm

    Lovely. Keep writing Wade.

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    • VBJ August 27, 2020, 8:29 pm

      Thank you, Puneet, very much appreciated!

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  • Jeffrey August 28, 2020, 6:05 am

    Wade,

    Very good writing there. And I really had to smile when you tell us you had to toss a bunch of belongings off that platform to lighten the load. A rookie mistake, as they say now, of packing too much. Travel forces everyone to trim down what you have to carry. Nothing is worse than lugging around stuff you can get elsewhere.

    I used to travel with a small, very cheap imitation leather suitcase, moving from one country to the next, and I could never tell if I was traveling with the suitcase or the suitcase was traveling with me.

    Ah, and the people who come to your aid both in the home country and in the faraway corners of the earth. So true. It’s very easy for me to picture those guys who gave you that first ride.

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    • VBJ August 28, 2020, 9:16 am

      Haha, yeah, those dudes, they were total bros. But it really taught me something about how the world generally operates. People help each other. On that first day of international travel I had two incidents where complete strangers took out time and effort to help me out. It’s really incredible to think about normal this actually is.

      Yes, it is an odd experience traveling with a heavy load. I still have to do it sometimes when lugging sizable amounts of filming equipment. It really consumes you, not only physically but mentally as well. The latter part is the most difficult to deal with. You travel to be immersed in your surroundings, to experience, engage, and learn, not to be thinking about luggage the entire time. I’m rather fortunate that I learned this lesson right off, as some months later I would take my first big backpacking trip.

      About that stuff that I tossed off the platform … my mom was pissed haha. She’d bought me all this stuff for my trip and I just chucked it! But that’s the way of travel…

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  • MRP August 30, 2020, 9:04 pm

    Hi Wade.

    Greetings from a quiet sandy beach in Shandong.

    Anyway, a this is a great reflective post. My heavy backpack blues was my first major backpacking trip around the Middle East in 1989; having – foolishly – bought a heavy Persian rug on impulse in Turkey, and then lugging it around for the next 5 months in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, etc.

    But that same trip also showed me the kindness of strangers. In the desert of north-west Syria, being late in the middle of nowhere, a Kurdish family put me up and feed me in their small home, isolated on the banks of the wide blue Euphrates.

    These and other vital early experiences propelled me forward and left me addicted to travel … 😀

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    • VBJ September 1, 2020, 4:21 pm

      Haha, yes, that’s an excellent heavy backpack blues story. I can imagine you carrying that carpet all over with you. It’s the kind of thing that defines young travel and, in a weird way, it’s the stupid shit that gets us hooked on this lifestyle. It makes for way more of an interesting tale than being a pro traveler who knows everything already. That shit’s boring. It’s the unknowing that often makes travel interesting. Thanks for sharing!

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    • Trevor Warman September 3, 2020, 9:25 am

      @MRP where is that carpet in 2020?

      Greetings from Sarande, southern Albania. Been to Butrint!

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      • MRP September 4, 2020, 11:39 pm

        @Trevor. Carpet ( and other souvenirs) remain in my Mother’s attic in New Zealand.

        Enjoy Albania! (awesome country)

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        • Trevor Warman September 5, 2020, 4:37 am

          @MRP Yeah its a great country. Back in Durres after Berat, Gjirokaster and Sarande. Gathering mental energy for Valbona hiking. Might take the train to Elbasan just for kicks..

          Hardly have any souvenirs.. 5 months lugging around a carpet… thats so awesome… i bought one in Erford, Moroc. But was only the size of a bath mat and was on a trip in between summer and winter in Switzerland.. enjoy!

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          • MRP September 5, 2020, 5:25 am

            Yeah, it’s a beautiful, finely- woven gem. But probably weights 7-10 kg. And here’s the kicker, young and dumb as it all seems now – it cost £200; a decent amount of dosh in 1989; luckily, Iraq + Syria were dirt cheap when cashing dollars on the black market or my trip would ended prematurely ( and as it was, I had to cut Egypt out of that journey, and arrive broke in Israel).

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            • Trevor Warman September 5, 2020, 7:20 am

              200 on a carpet wow.. hope u can roll it out one of these days.
              How is China faring these days?

              Europe is putting up restrictions.. things in the Balkans remain unchanged. Might be here a while… not keen on splashing out 50bucks for a covid test just to go to the next country..

              Immediate plans are:
              Day trip to Elbasan on the train – good for page hits
              Valbona hike
              Podgarec
              Korça

              Ohrid
              Skopje
              Nis
              Nis to Belgrade on the train
              Novi Sad to Subotica on the train

              Train posts got a lot of hits from trainspotters, lol and then what? Cornered, maybe other places will open… re visit Bulgaria (havent been since 2011) Greece (havent been since 2001) spending money on revisits :((( 98th country hmmm…gonna be a tough one this year

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              • VBJ September 6, 2020, 10:34 pm

                Man, two more to go! Gotta do it!

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              • MRP September 7, 2020, 12:00 am

                @Trevor. Looks like great journey ahead. I really enjoyed the Balkans, especially the Valbona hike.

                China has been great! Am in Shanxi, heading west towards deserts of Gansu + Qinghai.

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                • VBJ September 10, 2020, 11:59 am

                  Oh man, going out into some wild country. Go hang out with the cave people for me! Some have some really souped-up caves.

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          • VBJ September 6, 2020, 10:32 pm

            I was given a small carpet as a gift once from a gov agency in Azerbaijan. I left it leaning up against a trash can at the airport as I was on my way out.

            I’ve learned a thing or two since that day on the train platform in Florida haha.

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        • VBJ September 6, 2020, 10:30 pm

          I used to have a safe at my parents house that had a small amount of things that I’ve collected from my travels. Then my dad asked if he could keep some cash in there. I say alright not knowing that they were going to remove all of my things, put them in a bag, and lose it.

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          • MRP September 7, 2020, 12:12 am

            @ Wade. Damn, bit of a shame. Maybe they’ll turn up in a box stashed somewhere. It would be nice for you to have this past-journeys inspiration amid your present living + creative surrounds.

            My souvenirs have great art – and huge sentimental – value; some are even antiques. I suppose the reason to buy and find – like Saharan rocks or crystals – is to have a bit of the world around me (aside from memories + digital pics, vids, stories, etc).

            And one day in NZ or China, I’ll decorate a coastal cottage or a house truck with them … In our small van at the moment, we have a world map ceiling, curtains of printed-Indian cloth and colorful Tibetan prayer flags, but space is limited!

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            • VBJ September 10, 2020, 12:02 pm

              Hopefully it turns up somewhere. Funny, I kept that stuff at my parents’ house as I couldn’t imagine anyone ever messing with it.

              “I suppose the reason to buy and find – like Saharan rocks or crystals – is to have a bit of the world around me (aside from memories + digital pics, vids, stories, etc).”

              I like the idea of this. Then I can go out and travel and come back and have the world around me.

              I actually hung something up on the wall here in NYC — two things actually. Never done that before haha. But I believe I should probably do more of it. At the very least it would be cool for when people come to visit.

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  • g September 2, 2020, 8:09 pm

    What a long strange trip its been Wade. I hope you keep walking slow. p.s. sorry about the grateful dead reference, just couldn’t resist.

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    • VBJ September 3, 2020, 11:29 am

      Haha, all Grateful Dead references are appreciated here. Thanks for being there with me through the years, G. You were among the first to jump on board. Very much appreciated. Thank you.

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      • g September 5, 2020, 3:59 pm

        Wade, I first became hooked on this whole fiasco you call vagabondjourney way back around 2008 when you were in prague getting ready to set out on a pink bicycle you found in a rummage store for Istanbul. I had traveled roughly the same path a decade before in 2008 sans bike. It was my third overseas trip but my first big backpacking adventure. I had started with a travel partner who was on her 2nd trip through the continent and was supposed to be the veteran traveler and was going to show me all the fascinating places hidden away in the old world. Sadly, she turned out to be totally unskilled at budgeting and was flat broke by the time we made it to Italy. So half-way thru my planned trip I found myself solo and with at least 70% of my funds depleted. I made a decision in Germany that I wasn’t going home early, and I wasn’t going to call home and ask for more money. Those options were non-starters. I was 20 years old and about as green as a farm kid can be, but I had just enough travel wit and wisdom to understand that when you’re going broke reorienting yourself to the southeast is usually a good option. Pulled out my let’s go guidebook (too poor and inexperienced for even a lonely planet in those days) studied a map for about 5 seconds and decided Istanbul was the place for me. Well, I never made it to Istanbul either. An Irish actress waylaid me in budapest, followed by gorgeous black sea beaches in bulgaria that offered free wild camping. To this day I still haven’t seen the bosophorus. But man it was a helluva trip and I had been bit hard by the travel bug. So when I discovered you (thanks to a referal from hobotraveler) and realized you were about to set out on a similar journey I was hooked. Of course it came as no surprise to me that you didn’t make it to Istanbul that summer, I would have been disappointed if you did.
        I’m about to set off for a couple of days of trout fishing and primitive camping at a nearby wilderness area but wanted to share that memory and wish you a good labor day holiday.

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        • VBJ September 6, 2020, 11:12 pm

          Hello g,

          “when you’re going broke reorienting yourself to the southeast is usually a good option.”

          I’m going to put that in my list of travel rules. Sound reasoning … and sounds good.

          Thanks for sharing that story. In an odd way I also appreciate the fact that it’s taken so many years for it to be told.

          Yes, we do have not making it to Istanbul in common haha. That’s really the hallmark of travel: you need to select a destination because you need to start walking in some direction. It never really matters if you make it our not.

          Waylaid by an Irish actress. Sounds fun.

          I ended up being waylaid by the girl that I would eventually marry. She started sending me these emails and seemed interested … I thought it was worth ditching a rummage store pink bike to find out. It was. What’s cool is that a few months later we picked up where I left off and we made it to Istanbul together. That was my original plan and I don’t think I’ve ever had a plan actually work out like this before.

          I rarely ever expect to accomplish what I set out to do. I just want to find out where it takes me.

          Thanks for the good labor day wishes. Right back to you too.

          Walk Slow,

          Wade

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  • Jack September 3, 2020, 4:16 pm

    I love the stories and the memories. Keep them coming.

    While our younger selves were more brash and spontaneous, we have wisdom with our age….maybe.

    I have two things in the last several years.

    I used to get so angry at any delays. If things came up to slow me up, I’d get angry. Yes I do still get angry with delays but I try to stop myself. I changed after spending time in Baja. No, it wasn’t the Mexican culture of taking it slow that changed me, it was the driving. I’d have to make frequent trips between where I was living and San Diego…usually every two weeks but sometimes more often. I had to drive about 3 1/2 hours to get to the border…and then wait to cross sometimes a few hours or longer. I’d hate getting delayed for whatever reasons…..but I started to noticed bad accidents. If I hadn’t been delayed those 10 minutes, that might have been is something I said too many times. I decided that I would just accept delays as something that protected me from harm or allowed me to do something else.

    The second thing I’ve learned came from someone who shared the same last name(and was related to) an infamous crime family in Mexico. He told it came from his father and that was: If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. The idea is it’s better to do nothing than to do something that could be wrong. And it could be wrong because you don’t know what the right thing to do is. At my age, I try to live by this. I’ve stopped myself from doing things several times because I didn’t know what to do but felt I had to do something……

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    • VBJ September 3, 2020, 5:19 pm

      Yes, patience is something you really do gain. You just eventually get this understanding that it’s not worth your time to get upset. Or maybe you eventually start becoming aware of your own mortality? Why waste valuable life being pissed about something that you can’t change?

      Walk slow is a reminder that we eventually learn how to do. Enjoy the ride, man.

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