As I was listening to this exchange between a couple of co-workers before our last holiday, I realized I’ve never understood people like this. You know the type, and can spot them easily as they often have country flags sewn on their backpacks, speak in chest bumps and brag about their number of sexual partners.
Has traveling really devolved to a mere checklist for people to cross off in order to say they’ve ‘been there’ and ‘done that’? Some of the nicest people I’ve met in my life have not left their home state and I’ve met accomplished world travelers that are even larger world class assholes.
These questions and concerns seemed relevant as we have just started booking our trip. Interestingly, one of the first few questions we often get asked is: “How many countries will you visit?” to which I shrug. It was never about a number.
Staggering Purchases with Stockpiling Cash
We found tickets through Google flights for $1,500 for all three of us to fly from Seoul to Montenegro, a little gem in eastern Europe that provides a little time on the beach at Budva on the Mediterranean sea along with the old city of Kotor to start our trip. From there, we would take a train to Belgrade and a flight to Tallin, Estonia for the first two weeks. We got the tickets from Belgrade to Tallin on miles from Turkish airlines but they came with high fees of $120 a ticket. Still, the flight time and short layover through Istanbul where more desirable than what my favorite search engines were offering.
My strategy of making this trip affordable was to buy tickets and accommodation for two weeks at a time starting in October and continuing to February. With that, we could have the first 10 weeks of flights and accommodation paid for and use the spring months to gather money. Our travel rewards credit cards would earn transferable points for free flights and free hotel night stays which would be a nice respite after a steady string of Air B and B rentals which helped us stay under budget.
Our pace was pretty lazy. Four to five nights in most destinations at a time and we’d have to book Europe through the summer as it can get pretty busy. After August, I knew the pace would lighten up and we could book a few weeks out depending on our whims and where the wind blew us.
With these purchases, I faced a startling realization-there was no turning back. We were committed.
On that particular day we woke up in Siem Reap, Cambodia and took a series of busses to Ko Chang in Thailand with our friends Brent and Dakota. Upon arriving at the port town where we would take a boat the next morning, we were bombarded with people asking us, “Did you hear what happened? Do you have any news!”
A tsunami had hit the west coast of Thailand. Reports were spotty at the time, but rumors and news programs started to broadcast the devastation which hit as far away as Malaysia, Indonesia and even Sri Lanka, off the coast of India. The earthquake was so large that it had sent a wave all the way to east Africa resulting in a quarter of a million dead. For years after, experts and authorities would analyze what happened, improving building codes, warning signs and evacuation protocols in case it ever happened again.
However, thousands of miles away on that same day, another passing would come to more closely impact my life-NFL great Reggie White, who passed away at the ripe age of 43. Despite living in Thailand at the time, Reggie White’s life and death would more closely come to intermingle with my own. Mr. White died of respiratory disease compounded by untreated sleep apnea.
My Entire 30’s-A Decade feeling Tired and Unrested
For all my 30’s, I had never slept well. Even after reducing my fluid intake before bed time, I’d get get up on average of 3 times a night to urinate, 5-6 if I was out late. I always thought that this was ‘the norm’, and didn’t think much of it, or my persistent, chainsaw-like snoring which my more than patient wife had learned to live with. By snoring myself awake (which actually was choking) I was not getting enough oxygen to my body, slowly wearing me down causing me to become addicted to coffee to start my day and waking up feeling ‘unrested’.
When we moved to South Korea, I took advantage of the sleep clinic at Seoul National University hospital and spent the night with electrodes hooked up to my head undergoing my first sleep study. When the technicians confronted me the next morning with my results, they did so with the same tact that all Koreans deliver disconcerting news to foreigners:
“Please see the doctor Mr. Johnston. You could die very soon.” They said.
They pushed my follow up meeting from next week to that morning and when I did see the doctor, he lamented me for not coming in earlier to which I replied that I was living in Vietnam, which was a developing country and for most people, having a roof was a novelty let alone access to a state of the art sleep clinic. My data put my sleep apnea rating way past severe and just outside ‘near corpse‘. After a bit of back and forth, and the obligatory guilt trip, I was issued my own CPAP machine and started using it at 39 years of age.
My 40’s-The Healthiest I’ve Ever Felt
The first night I slept with my CPAP machine, I woke up feeling light headed. I had slept 8 hours straight which I had not done since my late 20’s. Every morning thereafter was like a night of rest that few people save babies get to enjoy. After about week, I noticed a host of qualitative improvements. I healed fasted. My joints ached less. No longer would I drag myself home from work everyday. The bags under my eyes tightened. It was like I had kicked a drug habit and was reborn. The sudden burst of energy allowed me to wake up early and do cardio followed by weights in the afternoon. Soon, my muscles grew, my skin looked better and at 42 years of age, hit personal bests in squats, bench press and every other exercise I attempted. All because my tissues got more oxygen.
For our trip, the behemoth ResMed CPAP machine that was my master would have to stay home. Looking for a new idol to worship, I settled on the ResMed travel CPAP machine which is to much bigger than my hand and doesn’t even have a display.
The coolest thing about this device, is it connects to your phone that monitors your sleep progress. You can see your sleep patterns from the night before and adjust settings accordingly. I’d have to buy 12 humidifier tablets which would be replaced every month, but I had a CPAP device that would pack small, work well and pack in my carry on backpack. I had a crucial piece of hardware that would make this trip bearable.
Twenty years ago, there was not even job descriptions like mine. Now, with the ever cascading deluge of platforms, apps and innovation that changes as fast as the color of a banana peel, schools and organizations hire people like me that can explain technology adoption in simple terms and offer training along the way. Helping other educators increase their skill set has been one of the most rewarding parts of my job and makes me wonder what new tech jobs are in store for us in the near future. Drone repair man? Already there.
This interest started in 2007 with me creating a blog to share my musings with like minded educators. After a few years, it grew into one of the top 500 educational technology blogs in the world and helped me rise up the ranks in Edtech circles to eventually become a Google trainer, regional presenter and keynote speaker. Despite these vain accolades and bravado, I still find it next to impossible to keep up with it all. It’s like shoveling your driveway while it’s still snowing.
However, for our big trip, I knew these skills would come in handy. As we couldn’t take textbooks with us, I’d have to leverage mobile learning platforms to help Ava learn as a 4th grader and make content that she could share to demonstrate her learning. Here are some of my favorites:
Explain Everything-This allows users to animate pictures and drawings as a movie file. This is handy for students that want to show multi step math problems.
Seesaw- Seesaw is a student portfolio system where teachers can distribute assignments digitally. Students can upload pictures, recordings and the teacher can share work with parents.
Ten Marks- This is a robust math program that gives practice on a variety of math problems.
Touchcast Studio– This is a fun program which turns a movie into a documentary/news segment with green screen interface options.
iMovie- One of Apple core suite products, this can add easy video clip transitions, titles and sound effects for digital stories.
Notability- With our new apple pencil, this is great for note-taking and highlighting pdfs or jpegs to practice annotating texts.
Paper 53- Similar to ‘notability’, paper 53 has a larger palate of draw tools. I particularly like the watercolor brush.
Khan Academy-A robust math program organized by topics and grade level. Videos and independent practice that are scaffolded into mastery tasks.
Minecraft- Running around in virtual battles may not have much applications to education until I learned that students can recreate historic places to reenact moments in history.
QR code Reader- Handy if you are in a museum and need access to additional information.
Class Dojo- A fantastic classroom management system that recognizes good behavior and serves as a nice parent communication system. New portfolio features make this and ‘seesaw’ almost evenly matched.
Show Me- Similar to ‘explain everything’ this also allows animation of drawings through video production.
Pic Collage- Great way of making, well, a ‘pic collage’ with drawings, text and scribble tools.
Epic- Epic has a massive reading library which is more elementary friendly than NewsELA and their user interface is more conducive to young readers with recommended ages for readers.
Expeditions- Virtual reality becomes a reality for the classroom teacher. Chose online expeditions and let students follow in headsets or just handhelds to prevent getting dizzy.
NewsELA- Curates non-fictional articles from major newspapers and other periodicals and translates them into different lexile/reading levels. Aligned to common core non-fictional reading standards. Good for upper elementary to high school aged students.
The scenery has taken a big change. For our first few days in Mongolia, the steppe was a smooth, barren landscape. What was once ankle high scrub gave way to hills, gullies and glens spotted with small trees. During our drive, we were 4 wheel creeping over lava flows, and insolent river crossings, which turned sanguine in our rearview mirror. By late afternoon, we were in the mountain steppe, with strange coniferous trees that had yellow pine needles which I’d never seen before.
The father of our Ger camp was ‘Gala’, and soon after meeting us, his young grandchildren chased Ava around the camp. All together, there were four families (Gala’s children) and their children living here and up till now, we had never come upon a group with such an extended family living together. The adults were the quietest family we had met. I would later learn why.
The Lovely Bones
We loaded up on horses and took off on an 8 kilometer horse ride, down to a local waterfall. The horses would favor the trails but mix it up by forging their own trails on the perfectly manicured grass. As we rode on, I noticed bones everywhere. Not covering the entire landscape, but everywhere you seemed to look, there they were- here and there, bleached white, stark against the sparse vegetation and grey volcanic rock. These signs of death were everywhere in Mongolia and I wondered if remains were from a wolf kill or from a local family who had simply thrown the scraps out. I always expected a bone to announce a nearby carcass, but I never saw one. Top echelon predators undoubtedly take the largest piece they can to their den and kin, and down the line with scavengers lining up and even the smallest of decomposers and detritivores getting their meager, but ample sized scraps. This tug of war over rotting limbs leaves no discernible epicenter of the creature’s last breath as pieces are separated, thinned and turned back into earth.
Horses are just like people, they like to go home. After a short rest at a local water fall, we mounted up and the horses started out with a trot, no doubt eager to get home to their pasture lands.
Erdene Zu Monestary
We left the valley camp homestay with a long goodbye the next morning. Saagii had given the mother a long, tearful goodbye, and I sensed something was amiss. During the embrace, Saagii whispered words into the mother’s ear and the mother nodded back, appreciatively tears streaming down her face. We would later learn that our host family had suffered a terrible tragedy only 2 weeks ago when their 19 year old son was unexpectedly killed in an accident. Instantly, I hated myself for being there and having this wonderful family take care of us and force smiles in the face of such agonizing grief.
We drove to the ancient capital of ‘Karakorum’ and walked around the Erdene Zu Monastery. This was the center of Mongolia in its golden years when it housed tens of thousands and was a premier destination on the silk road. As the Mongol empire spread, Kublai khan moved the capital city to Beijing to be a better location from which to run the empire and Karakorum began its slow but steady demise.
In Search of ‘The Real’
I always keep my eyes open for ‘The Real’ side of a place. The gritty. The sad. The overlooked.
This isn’t readily apparent to me when I touch down right after landing. It takes time to see past the guidebook and trip advisor recommendations, but when I see it and am in the ‘moment’, I know that’s the thing I’ll miss most about a destination. Waterfalls and scenic visits are just too easy.
Our last night in Ulanbatur, we went for Indian food. Tugsuu brought his son and he and Ava played ‘Shagai’ a local game played with 4-5 goat ankle bones. The strategy is to keep as many of your bones without losing them to the other player. Each bone has a distinct different feature depending on how it lands, and how it pairs with other bones, gives you more ‘livestock’ or opens you up to having them taken away from you. Lisa, Saagaai, Tugsuu and I were enjoying our last night together with great food, laughs and beer. The kids were entertaining themselves without a lick of English between them. We stuffed ourselves, and reminisced on stories of the last week.
It’s funny how one tiny piece of equipment can turn an entire piece of machinery useless.
This was the case for me with during our first night in the Ger when (while packing back in Korea) I left my CPAP mask behind, rendering my CPAP machine I’d brought to Mongolia, useless. I was diagnosed 3 years ago with sleep apnea and rely on this machine to help me sleep through the entire night, which is something I never did through my entire 30’s. I got up 4 times at night to go pee, although the stars were magnificent and worth the wake up which is what I told myself to offset my geriatric ruminations. After night skies in Namibia, they were the most brilliant I’d ever seen in my life with the milky way splashed across the cool canopy of night.
The ‘Ger’ Stay
The ‘Ger’ is a common sight in Mongolia. They lend themselves to the nomadic herding lifestyle and families will move twice a year, to a winter and summer locations and take their livestock with them. I thought that families would migrate huge distances to get somewhat of a relief from bitter temperatures (Apparently schools closed in Ulanbator for a week last year when temperatures dropped to -25) but many winter camps are merely a few hundred meters downstream or down a valley from their summer sites. I wondered why families would take the time to move such a paltry distance.
In the center is a stove which doubles as not only a cooking place, but a central heating unit. A central pipe takes the smoke up through the center and a flap over the roof can keep in heat, or let it escape easily. Every night in Mongolia, our hosts would stoke a fire just before bed and again to wake us up in the morning. In the desert steppe for our first few nights, the stoves would burn horse dung as firewood was scarce. The beds line the inner perimeter with space to move around by the central stove for socializing.
That morning, we drove through the national park spotting Przewalski’s horses and stags in the national park. If there ever is an olympic sport for spotting things at far distances, Mongolians are assured to win the gold, silver and bronze medals as evidenced by the keen eyes of our guides, Saagai and Tugsuu. Every time we stopped, they brought out their binoculars and managed to spot wildlife that would challenge Superman, let alone most mortals.
“What are you guys looking at?” I would often ask.
“On that far ridge, a group of stags.”
“You mean those tiny specs about 3 kilometers away?” I would say, squinting.
“Yes Gary! Do you see them too?”
Bactrian Camel Riding
After riding a camel in India a few years ago, I swore I would never ride another camel again for the rest of my life. At the time, we had planned a one night, overnight desert camp, and envisioned an experience very might like ‘Arabian Nights’, trekking through the dunes, near the Pakistani border. The reality was quite different. The provisions of our camp were packed underneath our saddles, so we were sitting on a heap of clothes, pots and pans which caused incessant rubbing on the inside our thighs from the cooking equipment creating a swelling so great, it felt two balloons on the insides of our thighs, making us look like were were wearing a pair of jodhpurs with the bulges on the inside. We walked, bowlegged, most of the way back the next day as we couldn’t stand the pain. Back in our hotel Jaisalmer, exhausted from the ordeal, I overhead a group excitedly talking about their one week camel safari leaving the next day with the same outfitters. I wished them well.
Bactrian camels in Mongolia are another story. The two humps and modest saddle make it quite comfortable to ride. Apparently, there are 285,000 Bactrian camels in the world and about 30% are in Mongolia with the rest in Tibet and other surrounding areas. Their two humps-which are mostly fat, and shaggy coats make them ideally suited to the cold, resource dry steppe. After mounting, we ventured out through the nearby sand dunes, visiting a local temple and watched the sun go down.
Care for some ‘Snuff’?
We had a meager dinner of fried rice and, you guessed it, mutton. After dinner, the son of the family we stayed with offered us some ‘snuff’ in an elegant snuff bottle as an after dinner treat to accompany our vodka shot.
Apparently snuff and snuff bottles are a big deal in Mongolia and even the process of how it’s presented can say a lot about the person and how things are generally going in their life. If someone offers you a snuff bottle that is open, it means that their life is good and they are experiencing good fortunes and bounties aplenty. If you are offered a snuff bottle that is closed, the presenter is undergoing hardship. Some snuff bottles are made of elegant rare earth minerals and can fetch up to thousands of dollars. Why someone would spend such money on glorified tobacco pouch and not a better Ger is beyond me.
That night, we fell into a deep slumber. I don’t know if it was the fire from the stove warming our limbs, vodka warming our bellies or the generosity of our hosts, but we were starting to feel like one of them. Hearing the group scamper of hooves outside our Ger, I nonchalantly said to Lisa before I drifted off to sleep: