The Greatest Year of My Life

One year ago I looked out the window of my comfortable office in Sydney and thought, “This isn’t quite right”. I now type this looking out the window in my hotel room in Yangon, Burma – and reflect on 2012, the most incredible year of my life.

At the start of this year I left the place that employed me for eleven years, seeking something different. I packed my bags and took off for a year of global travel, not knowing where I would end up.

I started in -30C weather in China for the ice festival in Harbin. In Jilin I heard accounts of North Korean corpses floating down the Tumen River. I witnessed the rare sight of North Korean tourists in Shenyang, censoring themselves in front of South Koreans.

Later by bus, train, truck, and jeep my friend James and I made a treacherous journey from Beijing to cross the land border into Mongolia. We continued all the way up to the border with Russia where our cameras stopped working because of the cold. After peering over into Siberia, I flew to the Arabian Peninsula to see turtles nesting in Oman. I then dashed back to the cold in northern Europe, to be rescued by a kind Norwegian while attempting to trek to the border post of Finland/Sweden/Norway. I had "aurora anxiety" and went husky sledding in Finland, before resting in London. And it was only March!

After driving to Wales for a lovely time with friends in the mountains, the Middle East leg began. I learned a thing or two in Gallipoli and went hot air ballooning over Cappadocia in Turkey; ate eleven times at the same restaurant in Beirut, Lebanon; was interrogated by an Israeli security agent; put the yarmulke onat the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; caught the bus with the locals to cross from Palestine into Jordan; and was dazzled by Petra

As the summer heat came I escaped to North America. After being detained by US immigration, I drove up the entire length of the west coast with help from the lovely K. In San Francisco we flew over the Golden Gate Bridge in a light plane – one of the greatest thrills of my life (thanks to Tia and Alex). I feared for bears when my car broke down in the redwood forests in northern California. I amusingly saw Seattle fans barrack for Miami during the NBA Finals. And Portland, oh how I loved Portland.

I hopped across the border to Vancouver to join my friend Calvin’s final days in Canada. In July some painful cross-country train rides awaited – improvised theatre in Chicago, swimming in Boston, seeing THE Star Spangled-Banner at The Smithsonian in Washington DC. In Hollywood I sat in front of the television for the London Olympics Opening Ceremony, only to find out NBC would be broadcasting on a ten-hour delay!

The whole time the teenage ambition of professional writing nagged away at the mind. I kept it up during the travels, but readers of this blog would have noticed in July the posts abruptly stopped.

On a hot summer’s day in Chicago I was in my hostel room checking my e-mails when I opened a message that would change my life. The University of Hong Kong had awarded me a scholarship to complete a Master of Journalism. The course would begin in September.

As if my very fortunate circumstance of travelling wherever I wanted whenever I wanted wasn’t intoxicating enough, someone wanted to pay for me to do what I always craved!

Travel plans I had for the rest of the year were hastily dumped and I headed for Hong Kong (via Sydney). Sri Lanka, Iraq, North Korea, Burma, Scotland, Madagascar, and Timor-Leste would all have to wait.

The Masters course has been intense, and adjusting to life in a new city has been a challenge. But learning the craft of journalism has been an absolute labour of love. I often pinch myself to check this isn’t all a dream.

First semester ended tomorrow and I arrived in Yangon, Burma this morning. I am here to work – tomorrow is the first day of an internship with a prominent English language newspaper.

So I’m back on the blog. Despite the four-month silence, my year of Unpredictable Delights has continued unabated. Tonight I stare out the window at the Yangon traffic and think to myself, “This feels just right”.

Are you here for World Domination?

When I was making plans for a second visit to Portland, Oregon I noticed a curious phenomenon. Every cheap hostel and hotel bed seemed to be booked out. One of the hostel staff told me that there's a big conference on the weekend I was in town. Yikes.

Two weeks later I arrived in the City of Roses and was on a walking tour of the local art galleries. One of the other tourists, a British lass named Tamsin, asked "So... are you here for World Domination?"

What? World domination? But I don't have a cat in my lap to stroke. And I'm not evil enough!

Portland, Oregon - Mt St Helens in the background.
Tamsin then explained that the conference that booked out all the beds in Portland was the World Domination Summit. It is meant to be a gathering of creative and not so creative types who aspire to an unconventional life in a conventional world.

Hearing my story of walking away from my previous life and funding a year-long trip around the world, she had thought that I may have been involved in the conference. The founder of the summit, the writer of the The Art of Non-Conformity blog, is closing in on an ambition to visit every country in the world - and teaches people how they too can "dominate the world" with their own "non-conformist" ambitions.

And of course, this fellow's home town is unorthodox Portland!

Portland, Oregon: Hawaiian food cart
Over that weekend as I walked around the city I realised conference attendees were everywhere. As I had lunch at a Hawaiian food cart, the people next to me were talking about their social plans over the summit. One was a charismatic Canadian woman, same age as me, who quit her corporate lawyer gig to travel around the world. She has now been on the road for years and funds the lifestyle with travel writing and speaking engagements. Naturally she was a speaker at the World Domination Summit.

It was heartening to hear of other folks around the world who had taken the chance to change up their lives. I knew almost everyone, at some stage of their lives, felt the way I did the end of last year - but to meet others who had actually taken action was gratifying. And in all places, Portland.

I ❤ Portland

Thursday July 5, 2012

Upon hearing my accent at a tram stop a local lady asked "Do you work for Nike?"

Even after visiting so many wonderful places around the world, for years I had always maintained that the only place I’d like to live in outside of Australia is New York City. But now please allow me to add to that exclusive list – Portland, Oregon.

Mt Hood watches over Portland.
Well, I would live in Portland if they’d let me. I’m likely not hip enough. I love that they have so many vegan burger joints, but I really like downing a Big Mac or two now and again.

Just like how I’ve always felt New York City should be a separate country to the rest of the United States, left wing Portland also has that feel. The place has a European ambience unmatched by other American cities. As this video from the sitcom Portlandia declares, the dream of the 90s is still alive in Portland.

Is it organic? Is it locally produced? These culinary questions are completely redundant in Portland, as they’ve already been answered. It’s actually more difficult to get non-organic food! May I please get some pesticides sprayed on that salad?

Portland food carts, yay!
Now a trendy fad around the world, the modern food cart concept began in Portland. Upon my first visit to the downtown cluster of carts (Alder and 10th) I was stunned by the number and variety of cuisine on offer, not to mention that almost every meal was less than $10. I could spend a month in Portland trying every cart! Just going around the block casually I found:

More Portland food carts, yay!

  • Egyptian
  • Hawaiian
  • Thai
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Mexican-Korean
  • Indonesian
  • German
  • Cuban
  • French
  • Indian
  • Argentine
  • Vietnamese
  • Greek
The Euro Trash food cart. You can even buy Foie Gras here.
  • "Whole Bowl"
  • "Euro Trash"
  • Italian
  • Chinese
  • Mexican
  • Scottish
  • Southern USA
  • Ethiopian
  • Polish
  • Lebanese
  • Caribbean

Did you know bookshops still exist? Yes, a place where one can exchange money for bound printed paper! Apparently while the rest of the world moves online there are still small independent bookshops doing business in Portland.

Do you remember these?
Those who led the city in the 1960s and 1970s were visionaries. In an era when other cities were competing to build up their skyline and freeways Portland exercised planning restraint. Even downtown Portland now contains very few skyscrapers, and a traffic jam is seldom seen.

Downtown, riverside park.
Public transport is thorough for a city of two million people, again the result of forward thinking policies from decades ago. While the rest of the world was tearing down their trams Portland had them installed. Buses, light rail and streetcars now zip around frequently. The free zone within downtown is an ingenious idea for tourists, locals, and the environment alike.

But why catch a bus when you can cycle? Bicycles are everywhere. The only other city I’ve seen more bicycles is Beijing. As an outsider it’s extraordinary to see an American city with more bikes on the road than cars. But this is Portland. On the streets there are young ladies riding in sundresses, middle-aged couples pedalling for leisure, and even a semi-legal nudie ride takes place annually.
The city’s only major league team, the Portland Trailblazers basketball team, is the ultimate underdog. To basketball fans the number of misfortunes and mistakes the NBA franchise has made is infamous. To the layperson only one fact needs to be presented: Portland is the team which overlooked Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft.

If you’re a fan of The Simpsons, creator Matt Groening grew up in Portland and named many of the cartoon’s characters after city landmarks. My treasure hunt of those locations is blogged here.

Portland is arty farty.
There is a vibrant creative scene in Portland. Not only is Portland Art Museum impressive for a city its size, small art galleries abound – especially concentrated in the Pearl District. The first Thursday evening of each month is a “free day” for Portland galleries, and includes an open-air art market where local artists sell their work.

Portlandia, an anthropomorphic representation of the city, can be seen in downtown as the second largest statue of its kind in the United States, after the Statue of Liberty.

Portlandia statue.
There are apparently no old people in Portland. The only folks of advanced age I saw were tourists, lesbians, or tourist lesbians. ­The city is disturbingly youthful, like as if a bouncer is monitoring the entrance.

Oregon has no sales tax. People from Washington state pop over to Portland to shop and dine.

The City of Roses has natural beauty too. Bike riders whiz by at Portland’s pretty riverside park and the mighty conical Mt Hood looms over the entire metropolis. And obviously the Rose Garden is a major attraction.

Harp player busking at the Rose Garden:
So Portland.
After we'd established that I didn't work for Nike nor Intel, the (Caucasian) Portlander lady told me about her adopted Native American daughter. She is grown up now, and after registering in her tribe she receives social benefits unheard of for the rest of the US population such as free healthcare. When her daughter expresses guilt for receiving the government assistance even though she has not had an indigenous upbringing and has no practical affinity with the Native American culture, the Portland lady responds "Don't you feel guilty - it's reparation for all the suffering endured by your parents, grandparents, and ancestors. No amount of welfare will ever make up for that. Your forebears would be proud that you're doing so well."

Perhaps it's the people I like the most in Portland.