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My Best Pictures of 2014.

Every year I review my favorite pictures to see what I can focus on for next year. For 2014 I decided to focus on photographing pictures of people.

Here are my favorite images of people from 2014 and the stories behind them.

Single frame from Hanoi, Vietnam showing the insane nature of traffic. June, 2014.

Woman walking in the Ginza district of Tokyo. April, 2014..

Group exercise in Beijing, China. August, 2014.

The rainiest day on my trip in Shanghai, China. May, 2014.

Kids running to cross the street in Kyoto, Japan. April, 2014.

A crowd of people watching the sunrise at Mount Bromo. August, 2014

Climbing Mount Bromo in Indonesia. August, 2014

Kid eating ice cream on the sidewalk. Beijing, China. August, 2014.

Motorbikes blow through an intersection in Hanoi, Vietnam. June, 2014.

Boys driving through the flooded streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. November 2014.

Military officer standing watch after the coup. Chiang Mai, Thailand. May, 2014.

Boys jumping into the river in Siem Reap, Cambodia. November, 2014.

For 2015 I’m going to focus on taking better pictures, getting closer to people, and telling stories.

Becoming adaptable on the road.

One of my favorite aspects of travel is that it makes me more adaptable. When I had an apartment, local friends, and a steady Internet connection there were many things that I could control: things that I could make perfect if I just put enough time into them.

Today almost nothing is in my control. I can’t know if I’ll get a good night’s rest, can’t figure out if a meal will fill me up before I order it, and have a lot of trouble eating healthily1. Some of my desire for control comes out with rather obsessive selection of gear, but a bunch of it is lost in all the shuffle of moving around constantly.

I have the kind of mind that likes to solve problems. On the road a lot of those problems have to go unsolved. I’m realizing that I don’t need a perfect solution to problems. I don’t always need to wear clean clothes or be dry or warm or cool. I’m learning to train my brain to ignore minor discomfort and pain in order to make life more pleasant.

I think that we get so used to having things working just right, just perfectly, that we lose track of what we actually need. It’s possible to let the tiny things that are going wrong and frustrating us dominate our time. We obsess over these tiny problems and try to fix them, or aren’t even aware of them until a product on Kickstarter tempts us to solve them with money.

Today I could spend hours reading about lenses instead of just going out and shooting pictures, I could spend a similar amount of time trying to plan out the perfect trip to a new town, stay in the perfect hotel, or eat the best local food. Or I can just go there and see what I like and try to smile when things don’t turn out right.

As I’m writing this it’s late at night, there’s loud music coming through my door, and mosquitoes are biting me on the ankles. To stay productive on the road I’ve had to learn not to care and just sit down and work.

One of my favorite books is On Writing by Stephen King. In the book King stresses that you can’t make your working environment perfect and eventually you just have to sit down and get to work. He writes in a windowless room facing the wall so that his mind has to create a world for him. To me that’s perfect adaptability: just sitting down and making yourself do something instead of endlessly fussing over getting it just right.

The picture is a Tom Bihn Daylight on a Shinkansen bullet train in Japan. Of the things I like to adapt to, bad gear isn’t one of them. Tom Bihn graciously sent me this pack to review in Kyoto. So far I love the pack but want to use it as my primary pack for a while before giving a full review.


  1. Right now I’m working on finding healthy meal replacements on the road. The best advice I have is to eat less frequently and to eat prepared food from grocery stores. It turns out you can eat almost anything as long as you don’t eat too much of it. For me it’s a lot easier to wait and eat one big meal later in the day instead of eating breakfast and then trying to moderate food throughout the day. Milk, eggs, fruit, and imitation crab are often available in any store on the road and much better, cheaper, and faster than food from McDonalds. [return]

The Traveller from Alpha Centauri

Ubud, Indonesia.

Graffiti in Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

Southeast Asia is cheap. Even a campground in the United States that costs $20 per night often comes with a nasty toilet, no shower, and a dirt patch where you’re welcome to sleep and make a fire to cook food. The same $20, actually only $16, gets an air conditioned room in Hanoi with real hand painted art on the walls, hand carved furniture, a queen bed, and a balcony. This makes it easy to travel in Asia for less than $50 per day and live in a nice hotel, over eat fantastic food, and engage in all varieties of hedonistic pleasure.

People in Asia don’t speak English very well. As I watch my subconscious thoughts over six months on the road the language barrier can make me think that people in Asia aren’t necessarily smart. It takes effort to fight these thoughts. People who don’t speak my language, or speak it with poor grammar, or constantly mistake requests and do something I didn’t ask for can appear to not be smart.

I tell you this bluntly, not so that you’ll feel bad for me, but so that you may see the same behavior in yourself someday and be careful with it. I’m saying these things not because I believe them to be true, but because I know that these thoughts can slowly infect us over time.

The thing is: Southeast Asia is not a playground to do whatever you please only because it’s inexpensive. People in Southeast Asia are not stupid, and being in poor countries is not an excuse to spend money like water or treat people like they’re stupid.

Through the benefits of luck, geography, access to natural resources and living in climates that don’t favor dozens of brutal diseases, Europeans and Americans have won the lottery ticket on earth. The rest of the world hasn’t necessarily caught up. It may never “catch up.” But that doesn’t mean you get to treat people in Asia like shit.

I bought this kid lunch in Cambodia. He was so pushy about selling bracelets and postcards that I decided to help him out. He also looked sick. Still, I felt weird afterward because he didn’t appear thankful at all for the food. Why? Because he probably need the money to give to his employer. Many of the kids begging in Cambodia never see the money that they raise. Poor parts of the world are full of moral mazes like this.

Your response might be “I’m not treating people in Southeast Asia like shit!” That’s totally valid. Here’s where the issue comes in: What we ask for, how we spend money, and what we appreciate when we travel are the parts of a culture that survive.

This is the converse to the point I made yesterday about tourism eating culture. We who do the tourism cause cultures to change. How we treat locals are how they think that we treat the rest of the world. In turn it may become how they treat each other, and it affects how they think of themselves and their country.

When I travel I am an ambassador for my country. I don’t want this job but it’s given to me and I have to accept it. I imagine rich aliens from Alpha Centauri coming to earth, spending money like water, paying for everything with diamonds, demanding Centaurian food and getting frustrated when my Centaurian language isn’t up to their standards. Then I imagine myself as that Centaurian when I visit Asia.

What do I do in this situation? I try to treat people as I’d like them to treat me unless doing so would offend them. I try to also treat them how they would like to be treated. I like to tread lightly in their towns, living efficiently, and favor stores with fixed prices over tough negotiation in the streets. I try to keep my hedonistic western pleasures (ice cream and coffee mostly) to a minimum.

Not giving money to a beggar at Angkor Wat. This is a nasty interaction driven by two clashing cultures. The western woman probably bought things from other kids, but got exhausted at repeated requests, so she kept walking. The child knows that westerners are good for money and that begging long and hard enough yields results. What should you do in this situation?

I believe that as a tourist I shouldn’t have to pay more for something only because of the color of my skin and my home country. I also believe in treating people like humans. It’s hard to turn down the tenth taxi request in a day gracefully. Sometimes I fail. But the way to atone for frustration on the street is to treat everyone else I come across as if they are a human and try to think opposite thoughts.

If someone doesn’t understand what I say, I imagine how well I’d do with their language if they were a tourist in my country. If I want to buy an experience or a hotel, I think about how I’d look buying the same thing in the United States. Before I take a picture I ask myself “Can this person get out of the photo if they want to?” and “Would I be upset if someone took this picture of me?” I can’t always take pictures that show people in flattering light, but I try not to make people look worse than reality.

True story: this woman’s face appeared to be burned off. I didn’t realize she was there, and she couldn’t talk. When I walked by she made a loud moaning noise and I looked down and was startled, saw her, gasped, and walked away in shock. I felt horrible, so I went back and gave her about $5. Even now I have no idea if the money I gave her went into her pocket or if someone maimed her so that she’d be more effective at begging for money. I have no idea if the $5 did more harm or good.

Sometimes, and I’m not perfect at this, I imagine myself from the outside as the traveller from Alpha Centauri. Blue helmet, pocket full of diamonds, getting frustrated that the Earthlings can’t figure out Centaurian language or cook a decent Centaurian dish.

Then I put myself back in the Earthing’s shoes and try to figure out how I’d like the Alpha Centaurian traveller to behave. I don’t necessarily think the alien should go home, but I do think that the alien should be respectful and aware of how he looks, how he acts, and how his actions affect life on Earth.

A final note: When the apes take over we’ll be paying this shit back. With interest.

Picking a Bag for Travel

Unpacking and repacking a bag every day for months teaches your hands how things fit together in a way deeper than can be described with words. I’ve learned packing origami: what used to take 20 liters now takes 15. I store all my medications in one bottle, snap the handle of my new toothbrushes in half, and carry a bar of soap that I shave into smaller pieces with a credit card instead of paying more for body wash or sticking a wet bar of soap back in my bag. These things seem a bit crazy, but when you’re forced to repack a bag 180 times you’ll start finding your own optimizations.

My Synapse 19 (review) holds and keeps everything I own — today about 19 liters — and also works well as a day bag. Not everyone wants to travel with 19 liters, but Tynan and Allison Levine use the Synapse 19 and also love it.

My Synapse 19 during the sunrise hike up Mt. Bromo, Indonesia.

Travelers become obsessed with their bags. It’s because it’s hard to make a good bag. If you use a bag long enough you’ll realize it’s shortcomings, and you’ll realize what makes a good bag great.

A good bag keeps things safe from rain, theft and drops. A good bag keeps things organized and at hand and is comfortable to carry all day. As you move throughout a trip you’ll pack, unpack, and carry your bag hundreds of times. You’ll become painfully any of every bag’s shortcomings. You’ll realize that the perfect bag is an almost impossible thing to find. Thankfully for pedants like me, there are good bags out there.

How to pick a bag

How do you pick a bag for travel? I’ve been on the road full time for six months and have thought about this a lot. Not everyone is going to want to travel as light as I do, but I know the tradeoffs of different bag sizes and can talk about them knowledgeably.

When I travelled in college my bag was 60 liters, later it shrank to 45, then 26, and now 19 liters. My kit — what goes in the bag today — is what I need day every day plus emergency gear until I can pick up extra supplies. If something is not used for more than a week it generally gets out of my pack.

I’ve learned that what I can do is affected by what I do and don’t carry. If I bring comfortable shoes I’m more likely to walk, if I bring a laptop I’m more likely to write. But if I bring a heavier bag I’m more likely to get tired and want to sit, and if I don’t bring something I usually forget that it ever existed. How much I carry has a big impact on my lifestyle on the road.

The biggest choice you have to make when picking a backpack is how big your bag should be. So I’ve laid out some observations from using different pack sizes and also seeing people struggle to carry them around.

How bag size effects travel

5-10 liters: Optimum travel weight and easily doable. Just a change of clothes, a rain jacket and smart phone (see my suggestions here). Everything else can be purchased en-route and discarded or given away when you’re done with it. You’ll have to cycle through gear more often than someone with a larger bag. This turns out to not be so expensive: you’ve saved money by buying less gear up front. You’ll also save money by nevering paying to check a bag, to hire a taxi to go less than 2 miles, or by overpaying for a hotel you find online.

In these volume limits you don’t need much internal organization. At exactly 10 liters a roll top dry bag would be a solid choice. The bag is cheap, durable, and waterproof.

Good backpack options are the Tom Bihn Daylight and the Sea to Summit Ultrasil. Technically both of these are over 10 liters, but they lack any internal organization and will collapse to a very small size when you wear them.

10-20 liters: Bigger but still comfortable enough to carry all day. You’d rather have a lighter bag but it’s not a big deal to go hit sights with it. You’ll never need to pay for a storage locker. This is the ideal travel size if you want to have a few more situations covered (such as carrying both a warm jacket and a rain jacket) or carrying a camera and a laptop. This is where I fall. My favorite bag in this range is the Synapse 19 (review and details here).

An overloaded Synapse 19 backpack. I carry less than this now, but every time I leave the United States I end up with an overpacked bag.

25-30 liters: Bags this size will will be lighter and smaller than almost everyone else’s bag but still big enough to be unpleasant to have with you every hour of every day. You’ll probably want a separate day bag to hold valuables when you need to leave the bigger bag at a hotel. My favorite bag in this range is the Tom Bihn Smart Alec.

The Smart Alec is one of Tom Bihn’s only bags with a built in compression system to become smaller when it’s empty. It’s the pack I started my trip with in March. It has some benefits over the smaller Synapse 19. The 19 encourages you to pack weight in the organizational pockets away from your body. This makes the bag feel heavier than it needs to. In the Smart Alec the whole bag is an open space and you can decide where to place items and see how they make the bag feel heavier or lighter.

Another option in this range is the Aeronaut 30. I haven’t tried the Aeronaut 30, but I have tried the Aeronaut 45. The Aeronaut design is nice if you want something laid out like a traditional suitcase, but I personally would not want to use it as a daily backpack. It has backpack straps and works nicely for carrying things around, but organization isn’t laid out in a way makes it the kind of bag you’d want on your back every minute of every day.

35-45 liters: If you really need to carry a lot 35-45 liters will do. But this amount of volume and weight isn’t comfortable to carry all day. These bags are big enough that it will often have to be checked on flights outside the United States or manhandled by transit staff on boats and buses in Asia. When I carry bags this big I fantasize about getting it off my back as soon as possible, which means I often travel from hotel to hotel and as a result lose spontaneity from my travels. I can’t see myself getting off a train with a 45 liter backpack and wandering a city by choice for the whole day before finding a hotel sometime after dinner. To me that’s a deal breaker: big bags make travel less enjoyable.

If you do travel with a 45 liter pack you’ll probably want to include a day pack in your gear as well. Good options would be a roll top dry bag or the Sea to Summit Ultrasil. You’ll use the daypack to hold valuables when your bag is checked for flights or stored in the bottom of a bus or a boat. At 30 liters or smaller, few people question the size of a bag as you board transit. At 45 liters it becomes very hard to keep the bag on your person at all times.

My original around the world bag, a Smart Alec 26, next to typical packs you’ll see on the road. The Smart Alec used to feel small to me, now I can’t imagine going back to a bag that big. The 45 liter bags are just insane unless you need to carry extra clothes for business or social functions.

Greater than 45+ liters: The bag generally extends above your shoulders when walking around. You’ll want to put it down as soon as possible. When I travelled with bags this big I had to plan my moves between hotels and plan my days around going back to a hotel to get the bag and then dropping it in the new location as soon as possible. As a side effect I wanted to arrange lodging before I arrived in a town, leading me to overpay vs finding deals in the street.

Two suitcases in Kuala Lumpur. I’m glad this isn’t me. Unless you deeply need the extra clothes try to stick to a smaller single bag approach.

Which size is for you?

As I’ve tried to write above: the size of the bag you pick has a big impact on your travel. Probably more than any piece of gear since the bag you pick determines how much hassle you’ll run into moving yourself from town to town.

As I’ve cut my pack down in size over time I’ve realized that I don’t really miss much. The only thing I’d like is a full size tripod that collapses into nothing. I’ll be shopping for one in Japan next week.

How I Travel

What’s the best way to travel? How do you get the most out of a trip abroad? How do you travel in a way that you’ll remember, that you’ll enjoy, and that you’ll cherish in the future?

I think that the best trips are ones that will pay dividends in the future: the ones that generate moments that I’ll remember. An old man once told me that travel was the best way to live longer, and I agree with him. When I stay in one place for too long, when I don’t challenge myself for too long, it’s easy to forget the days and let them blend together. When I move I remember almost every day.

I find that seeking novel experiences and views helps me remember every day. Don’t try to replicate my experience, find your own.

I worked at Facebook for two and a half years and it was one of the most exciting places anyone could have worked. It’s overly dramatic to say this but it’s true: the decisions we made to ship or not ship products altered the way one seventh of the world experiences life. But when I look back on my time at Facebook I remember only the highlights. I remember a few dozen notable days out of more than five hundred. I don’t remember the days when I came into the office, worked hard all day, and went home.

When I move I remember almost every day. It doesn’t matter if the things I remember were pleasant or not, or how much money I spent, as long as the trips help me get a concept and appreciation of each day. It doesn’t matter much if I remember sweating, being thirsty, and covered in dust in the Grand Canyon, or spending five hours going sixty miles on a local bus in Indonesia, or seeing beautiful temples in Japan. What matters for my memory is the novelty of the experience.

Comparisons

Your experience on the beach will never be as perfect as carefully timed and edited photograph.

I think that one of the best ways to travel well is to not compare yourself with other people. My experience never feels as good as other people’s photos and stories. I remember all the moments: pleasant and unpleasant. I try to share a mix of both types of moments but have a bias to share the most interesting things.

As I summarize my trip it looks much more glamorous and exotic than any trip will feel. You only see the highlights. There are around 1,000 pictures on this website. Each of those photos took about a second to make. For each of those photos there are about 15,000 untaken photos stretching the full six months of time on the road. Those are moments you’ll never see and that I’ll forget in time. The reality of my life is far less interesting than the highlights reel.

Seeking Novelty

A novel experience that you won’t find in any Yelp reviews.

To me comparisons and expectations are important when deciding where to go. I’ve tried to do what everyone does and I’ve come away disappointed. I spent $100 to see the sunrise at Mount Bromo and it was gorgeous, but what you don’t see is the journey to get there. You don’t see the rowdy crowds, you don’t feel the displeasure of being constantly hassled by touts and ripped off by local shops. If you had been there you’d know that the experience is much more complicated than a single spectacular view.

The simplest example of comparisons and novelty is deciding where to eat. I could open Trip Advisor or Yelp and try to eat the best food. Or I could walk down the side streets and see which restaurant is packed with locals and try to order what they’re eating. I find that too much of the world is off the map and too many excellent restaurants are left unreviewed. So when I’m on my own I tend to wander and find things for myself. Without any expectations or friends to compare myself with I enjoy that experience a lot more.

The expensive way to seek novelty is to try maximize life through known experiences: Yelp reviews, Wikipedia entries, and Facebook checkins. The cheaper way is to try to experience as much as possible with relatively few expectations. The cheap way is to just ramble. Either way seems to lead to equal happiness for me because the real joy is in just experiencing things that I’ll remember.

In practical terms:

  • I eat local food at local restaurants. For about 1/5th the cost of western food I get to try something I’ve never tried and I’m sure to remember.
  • I walk down streets at random and watch how people do things. I try to think about how it compares to life in my own country. It’s free. Doing what the locals do away from the tourist sights is more memorable and cheaper.
  • I’ve found that most tourist sights are oversold experiences. The only two I’d unequivocally recommend are The Grand Canyon and Angkor Wat. Those both so completely changed my perspective on what nature can do and what humans can do. Everything else could have been missed.
  • I don’t beat myself up about taking an occasional scheduled tour, but I try to do it with friends. Only about half of the scheduled tours I’ve done were worth the expense but it’s always been better with someone along to share the experience. Similarly I mostly only go to nice restaurants with people I meet along the road.
  • Staying in tourist towns is much easier than staying elsewhere if you don’t speak the local language. Tourist towns aren’t only for foreigners though: there are hotels in Mexico for Mexicans and hotels in Thailand for Thais. This lets me be a tourist but experience life a bit closer to how a local would.
  • Shopping is fun and it doesn’t have to be for tourist items. I’ve bought no souvenirs on my trip but I sometimes visit souvenir shops and look at what they carry. I also love finding local camera stores and book stores, or spending a full day wandering around trying to find small stuff I need. I don’t believe that I should have to pay more for anything because of the color of my skin or the size of my pocket book, so I dig around for deals and meet lots of people in the process.