NEW YORK — Arriving back in the U.S. after a 37,000-mile trip around the world — most of it overland in a '96 Toyota Land Cruiser — I made a funny mistake. I'd survived landslides, jungles, breakdowns and accidents, monkeys stealing my breakfast, cops shaking me down, border guards turning me back, and desert thugs looking to take my precious water. Finally I got through customs in Los Angeles, flashed my colorful passport to the officers and expected to see friends who'd promised to meet me — but no one was there.
After asking someone what day it was, I realized my mistake. It was Saturday. I'd told them I was arriving Sunday. I'd forgotten I would cross the international dateline somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and go back in time a day.
I thought of Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days." He won a challenge to get around the world in 80 days only because he got an extra 24 hours by traveling eastward. I got the same bonus, gaining one more day on this planet as I circumnavigated the globe toward the rising sun. I was on the road 456 days, but according to the calendar, it was only 455 days.
I'd set out back in November of 2009, driving from New York to Buenos Aires, then South Africa to Iran, through India and Bangladesh and around southeast Asia before flying to the West Coast and driving home to New York. Before I left, I worried about health and safety, got vaccinations and outfitted my truck with a pop-up tent and other equipment. But aside from a few encounters with extreme weather, corrupt officials, and individuals in various places a little too interested in my possessions, I got home fine.
I even stayed within my $50,000 budget, including the $14,000 I spent to buy and equip the truck before I left. Most other expenditures were also vehicle-related: truck repairs, $7,000; shipping the vehicle across oceans, $12,000; and gas to propel myself around the world, $7,600 (ranging from $1.50 a gallon in Yemen to more than $5 in some parts of Africa).
There were some disappointments and changes of plans along the way, mainly due to political instabilities and difficulties getting visas and crossing borders. Pakistan would not issue a visa due to flooding and other issues, and I didn't have time for the necessary paperwork to go through Russia or China.
But I had plenty of adventures in the places I did reach. My truck got stuck in the mud overnight on top of a 13,000-feet-high mountain in Peru; I got a military escort from Yemen to Oman with machine gun-toting soldiers, and I made a mad dash to escape scam artists in Delhi who took me to a fake tourism office. I was their perfect victim, desperate for a place to crash after an exhausting night traveling from Iran. They tried to book me in a $150-a-night hotel, insisting that the cheap places I'd picked had closed or burned down. I finally agreed, then asked to check my e-mail on their computer. I quickly booked a hotel for $22 and fled out the door to the relative freedom of the street.
Traveling around the world, you can't help but be struck by the contrasts from country to country. Shortly after arriving in Africa, I was startled to see an elephant crossing a road. Months later, I had a similar surprise when I saw pigs in India after traveling in the Muslim world where pork is forbidden. And although I dreamed longingly about the cold last summer while in the deserts of Ethiopia and Djibouti, the minus-15 degree temperatures of winter in Seoul, South Korea, sent me running to the hot public baths.
I also was struck by how high-tech Seoul is, even on the subway, where there are free terminals for Internet access, giant touch screens for information and maps, devices to disinfect hands and other gadgets. I realized I was the only one on the train not watching TV or playing games on a cell phone. What a contrast with other places I had been through. It occurred to me that while half the planet's population lives in a virtual reality, the other half can't get enough to eat.
Even for me, carrying a wallet garnished with my life savings, it was hard to eat well in remote places, particularly poor desert countries in Africa with no restaurants and few markets. In Laos, I met a smiling hunter who traps rats to eat. Before we parted ways, I gave him some dry pork skin I had bought, thinking it was potato chips. In Japan, few people spoke English and the food was so different that I hardly ever knew what I was eating. But there also were many delicious highlights on my trip, including Thanksgiving in Thailand. Instead of turkey, I feasted with a friend for $20 on spring rolls, bacon-wrapped chestnuts, egg-stuffed fish cakes and sauteed morning glories. We also had a pork dish, which I told the waitress to prepare as if it was for locals. It was so hot it nearly killed us.
After traveling in Muslim countries that prohibit alcohol, it was also quite a contrast to spend a few days on the Thai resort island of Phuket, known for extreme nightlife. Most pictures of my adventures land on my blog at TransWorldExpedition.com, but I decided not to post all the images from the island. I have a bunch of schoolchildren following me, and what happens in Phuket at night is quite simply alarming, even for someone who saw as many things as I did.
Traveling the world also makes you appreciate the level of organization that exists in Europe and the U.S. In most places, getting answers or information is a challenge. Many things are cheaper in developing countries, but you never know what kind of service you will get. Governments often are inefficient and sometimes corrupt, with officials asking for bribes in addition to reams of meaningless paperwork. Of course, locals always are the first victims.
In some places, I connected with old friends, friends of friends, or strangers who read about my trip and tracked me down by e-mail. Getting home-cooked meals or taking a tour with locals was priceless. But in other places, I went for weeks without having a normal conversation. And sometimes, overtures from locals were unsettling. In India, for example, whenever I stopped, I would soon have a group of strangers asking questions, opening the truck doors, looking around. One morning it took me hours to find a new gas tank cap to replace the one that inexplicably disappeared as I got gas.
As my travels came to an end, one reader asked if I'd found what I was looking for on the long road around the planet.
Well, I was not sure what I was looking for when I left, but I feel wiser about the state of the world. I may not be smarter or better, but I am stronger, and I have more stories to share than the average person. I've been away for 15 months and after seeing many places, I reckon New York City with its diversity is where I feel most at home.