When Ben Wood opens the door of his parents' Oak Park home, he seems completely at ease. But after I sit and talk with him a while, I notice he's a bit restless. "Fidgety," he calls it. Perhaps it's because he's not settled hereâ€"Oak Park is just a rest stop in a long and unfinished adventure.
Wood's going, quite literally, around the world.
The trip isn't the result of any grand plan. It actually started with a girl. "I was dating a Japanese woman at school and was looking for options to go to Asia," Wood says.
Along with several of his Carleton College roommates, Wood hatched a scheme to teach English in South Korea for a year after graduation. "In Korea, there's such a demand for English teachers, for the white face. They sell white teachers to parents," he explains.
The romance ended, but the idea remained. Wood has a passion for history, nurtured by favorite teachers at Oak Park and River Forest High School and a major in African-American history at Carleton. Korea interested him for the huge American presence there, the up-and-coming economy, North Korea so close. And for kids with limited funds just graduating from college, it was doable.
So Wood and his friends signed up: one year teaching English to preschoolers during the school day and older kids after, in return for round-trip air fare, a place to live and $2,000 a month. The work turned out to be very hardâ€"imagine being thrown, totally untrained and unprepared, into a room of 30 preschoolers who don't speak a word of Englishâ€"but Wood fell in love with the kids and Korea.
"I tried to integrate myself into the culture, pick up the language, not just hang out with Westerners," he says. "I loved itâ€"the food, the people, the pricing."
If there was any plan for the round-the-world trip, that's where it came fromâ€"the joy of discovering a foreign culture from as far inside as a young American can go.
Becoming a world traveler
Toward the end of his year in Korea, Wood was bubbling with places he wanted to go. A travel agent suggested that a round-the-world ticket would be more affordable than booking separate trips. Wood settled on a Northwest Airlines dealâ€"one year in one direction on a group of participating air carriers, up to 10 stops, under 30,000 miles, beginning and ending in the same general vicinity. Dates could be changedâ€"places, too, but that costs extra.
While in Korea, Wood developed a habit of chronicling his thoughts, adventures, whatever, in group e-mails to friends and family. He started small, but by the time he got home a few weeks ago, about 100 people were getting them directly from him, and another 50 by way of his dad (Picking up his dad at the dentist last week, Wood was hugged by a woman named Valerie who told him she loved living vicariously through his travel accounts. He had no idea who she was.)
Last August, from an Internet cafĂ© in Kuala Lumpur (the capital of Malaysia), Wood wrote: "I officially purchased my around-the-world ticket. I'll be going from Thailand to Sri Lanka to India to South Africa to Mozambique to Switzerland to England to Chicago. I'll break in Chicago for probably three months, hopefully find some work during that time, then I'll finish off the around-the-world ticket. I'll go from Chicago to Hawaii to Japan to Hong Kong (where I'll probably explore China on my own dime for maybe two months) and then back to Thailand. I'll probably just fly home after that, unless some other amazing (and inexpensive) opportunity presents itself."
The itinerary doesn't reflect travel within and between countries other than by air. There's a lot of that, especially in Southeast Asia, where Wood and his buddies also visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and in Europe, where Wood roamed from country to country, often bunking with friends and acquaintances.
Themes run through the e-mails and Wood's conversation. Food and drinkâ€"particularly beerâ€"loom large. The kindness of strangers, some who quickly become friends, continually delights. Logistics are wearying, especially with the constant struggle to keep on the cheap. Language barriers can be crossed with a smile and a pointed finger. There's always a concern for staying inside the culture and away from tourist destinations, although Wood allows himself to be bowled over by Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal.
In India, he comes up with a "working definition" for the trip, admittedly short and shallow: "I'm traveling to meet people, experience culture, discover the world and taste the food. I almost always prefer people to buildings, and generally find museums remarkably boring."
Back home, he articulates the tension he feels this way: "You're always a tourist. But I hate being a tourist. I try to get away, eat what people eat, do what people do."
On the first leg of the trip last August, Wood travels with three friends to Southeast Asia. Bangkok, Thailand is a hub, so they go back and forth from there but otherwise avoid it. Bangkok, Wood writes, is "lots of sleazy white people with Thai girls about half their age," and rampant prostitution.
The South Thailand beaches are beautiful. Koi Phi Phi is an "actual island paradise," writes Wood. (Several months later, in Paris, Wood learned the island was destroyed by the tsunami.)
A four-day trip on the backs of motorcyclesâ€"with guides doing the drivingâ€"is a highlight. They ride through silk worm and coffee plantations in the Central Highlands, and spend two days on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, just recently paved but not accessible to larger vehicles so largely untraveled by tourists.
"When viewing the actual trail, I immediately understood how insurmountable the American task of destroying it truly was," he writes. " ... You couldn't count the number of trees if you had a video camera and a calculator. Sweeping forests as long as the eye can see. A narrow stream that quickly turns into a raging river."
They pause to remember tragedies. In Cambodia they see the Killing Fieldsâ€"where a remembrance monument has 15 levels of human skulls and Wood feels nauseousâ€"and the Genocide Museum. In Saigon, they visit the War Memorial Museum (renamed from the American War Crimes Museum).
"I don't think I'll ever forget the picture of a smiling American soldier who's lifting the top third (including head) of a Vietnamese body in the air," Wood writes.
But they look for fun, too, like the night of "Cambodian Cocktails ... rice wine, coke and twist of lime mixed in ice and slammed on the table three times," with great, cheap food and dancing.
Wood eats fried cricket in Thailand ("the aftertaste reminded me of cricket," he deadpans), and fish eyeballs in Malaysia. Adventurous but not crazy, he passes on roasted bat and rat in Vietnam.
Sri Lanka and India
In October, Wood moves on to Sri Lanka. This is the solo leg of the trip, and he recalls feeling less secure without back-up. It turns out, though, to be his favorite stop. People are "remarkably friendly," he says. "If you have trouble finding a bus stop, they'll walk you there." Great, relatively cheap, spicy food, lots of English speakers.
He meets a friend for life in Colombo, tastes amazing mangos in Jaffna, navigates Tamil Tiger territory and sees holy sites in Anuradhapura and Mihintale.
India proves more problematic. Family of a distant friend invite Wood to stay with them and he finds himself overwhelmed by their hospitality; they insist on paying for everything, moving him from his accustomed "roach motels" to "marble palaces," he writes.
"My discomfort would continue for much of India, making this leg of travel one of the hardest bits (even when living in some of the easiest conditions)."
The best bits: the "magnificent beauty" of the Taj Mahal, a dip in the Ganges, and the Devali festival in Delhi, where fireworks light the city for days.
The poverty and persistent beggars in poor countries are heart-wrenching. Wood decides donations to charity are the best response, and finds one in India. (In Cambodia, he and his buddies volunteered for three days at an orphanage, and gave money and blood to a Swiss doctor running multiple hospitals.)
In November, Wood is on a plane to Johannesburg, South Africa. He plans to meet up with an old Oak Park friend, Mia Yankow, who's serving in the Peace Corps in Mozambique; Yankow's parents, on their way from Oak Park; and Yankow's sister, who lives in London.
Treated like a member of the family, Wood realizes "how easily I fit in, how much they [remind] me of Oak Park," and how much he misses his own family.
He finds prices in Africa surprisingly high and life very hard, particularly in Mozambique and Lesotho, where they go to visit another Peace Corps volunteer from Oak Park, Ruth Giorango. "I'm accustomed to certain creative comforts. Minimal, much less than a lot of people," he comments. Showering with a cup and bucket is over his line.
In South Africa he remembers "an undercurrent of violence, a real sense that everyone feels insecure." It is, he writes in an e-mail, "what I imagine a flashback to America 50 to 100 years ago might have been like. The racial tension is thick, although hardly anyone discusses it."
On his last night in Mozambique, Wood and Yankow miss a connection and are stranded. After Yankow asks for help (she speaks fluent Portuguese), a "random family" invites them to stay in their home, and proceeds to move outside with their seven children (until they're persuaded not to) so Wood and Yankow can have the small hut to themselves.
It demonstrates what Wood calls the "overarching" lesson of his trip: "People in general are really friendly. If you smile, give positive signs, they'll do nice things and be kind," he explains.
Europe and home
Being a tourist in Europe seems "absurdly expensive" and tame after the earlier parts of the trip, until Wood has his wallet stolen in Barcelona, the only time he's victimized on the entire trip.
In January and February, he winds his way through Italy, France, Denmark, Ireland and England. Oak Park looks "very similar but not quite the same" when he finally gets home on March 1, 18 months after leaving for Korea.
After replenishing his coffers by working in a bank until July, Wood will leave for Hawaii (he has an aunt there), and then go on to Japan and China. His round-the-world ticket ends in Asia, where it began. He's considering teaching for another six months in South Korea, which would earn him a plane trip home.
After that, Wood will head to graduate school, studying economic development. He's interested in "tariff and subsidy reduction reform," he says.
And then? As he knows better than most, there's a whole big world out there.