The Long Road Home

And somehow it all came to an end.

It happened in the blink of the eye before I even knew it. Actually it happened in roughly a week’s time, but the next thing I knew I was back in the States, back in the groove, and back where I started unsure if I was meant for traveling in circles. Somehow straight lines had suited me just fine.

A straight line has no end. It keeps moving. Circles end and begin again. To end is one thing, but to begin again is another.

I wasn’t ready.

Yet, nine days, five planes and a lifetime away I found myself back at the beginning.

The journey from the life of my dreams back to the life of my reality began in Mumbai on a late afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur. The hyper-extravagance of Kuala Lumpur — all glittery gold and tacky tart — was the first sign that I wasn’t ready to go back.

The crisp air-conditioned bus. A fast food chain on every corner. Megamalls. Monorails. The Asian leg of my journey began here. At the time, I found it so incredibly exotic. Upon returning, it felt remarkably reminiscent of the life I’d left behind.

I had to get out, to run away one last time. So, I ran to the deep jungle of the earth’s oldest rainforest, Taman Negara.

Wandering the jungle alone like a madman — sleeping on planks of wood in animal hides and spending my days tearing bloodsucking leeches from my feet — I explored the ancient land. I waded through chest-deep rivers, followed tiger prints, tip toed around elephant poo, and came face to face with a wild, leopard-sized Asiatic golden cat and her two cubs. I left the jungle with shoes full of blood and eyes devoid of fear.

Wasn’t that was this was all about anyway?

“To dream anything that you want to dream / That’s the beauty of the human mind / To do anything that you want to do / That is the strength of the human will / To trust yourself to test your limits / That is the courage to succeed.” – Bernard Edmonds

Man will never know his true strength until he tests it. Sure, plenty have tested their fate in much bolder, nobler ways. But this was my story. This was my climax. And I wasn’t sure if there would be another. You can never truly know what the climax of your life will be until it’s too late.

I was detained, searched, and questioned upon arrival in Christchurch, New Zealand as aftershocks rattled the ground. Border police released me two hours later after every item in my bag was meticulously inspected, swabbed, scanned, and sniffed.

My friend Karen, who served as caretaker of my things, met me in the North Island that afternoon. She had kept my luggage tucked under her downtown Auckland bed in such a way that it lifted the lower end of her mattress. The neatly arranged mementoes of my life in New Zealand had thus become a footrest.

Karen gave me a warm Western welcome, calling me too skinny and making it her goal to fatten me up in three day’s time. She had completed the same journey I did almost 15 years before and, when we spoke of our paths through Asia, we realized that, all and all, little had changed.

Three days later, after making peace with what I consider the most beautiful country in the world and a second home, I caught another series of planes – first to San Francisco, then to Washington, D.C.

Two weeks later, I caught a bus back to New York City, found a job, and the line became a circle again.

Travel is like a drug. Rather, it was my drug, and I got really high. Coming down was the hardest part.

The high began three-and-a-half years before it ended. It started with the travel bug, progressed to island fever in the Caribbean, morphed into ex-pat addiction in Oceania, dabbled in traveler’s diarrhea in Asia and ended in denial back in America.

And so, this is my last post as Mark on the Map. I’ve learned a lot transferring my first impressions and second thoughts into a blog for everyone to read.

I’ve gown up charting my journey on here. Thanks for indulging me. Thanks for reading. Thanks for caring. This blog enabled me to move on to the next stage of my life and you can continue to follow my professional career as a travel writer by checking out the information on the “About” page.

If you take anything away from this blog, I hope it’s this:

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

It’s been my motto from the very start and remains my motto today.

Farewell and get lost,

MarkontheMap (a.k.a. Mark Johanson)

Idiosyncrasies of the Equine

Leo was supposed to be the docile one.  He was supposed to be the one for beginners, the one that doesn’t step out of turn or cause any commotion.  Leo was supposed to be the horse that takes the novice rider on a gentle ride and returns him unscathed, but Leo was having one of his days.

When I arrived at South Westland Horse Tracks, our guide Amber informed me that this would be a two hour intermediate ride and asked if I had ever ridden a horse before.  Not wanting to be left behind, I answered, “Yea… Not a lot… But… Definitely.”

What I failed to mention was that my lone ride on a horse took place at the Kensington Stables, a deceptively lofty name for this derelict operation on the fringe of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY.  The burnt-out-urban-horse never quite made it to a trot as we crossed the rushing traffic of Park Circle into the meticulously landscaped park, flooded with people on a sunny Saturday afternoon in August.  It was one of those necessary experiences one undertakes when they haven’t left the confines of the city in months and find themselves a few blocks away from the normal route pretending as if they are running wild in the green countryside.

notice me in the background acting like a true cowboy

Finding myself in an area where it is often easier to run into another cow than another human, I thought I’d let my inner cowboy loose for another try.  Two other twenty-somethings, a moderately experienced rider from Lithuania and a horse fanatic from Sweden who shared my surname and was sure we were related, joined me for the ride.  Ms. Johanson’s sudden outburst of Swedish was met with my blank stare which disappointed her a little, but her biggest disappointment would come when she realized how inexperienced I was and how eager my trusty horse Leo was to obstruct her path.

Leo, the eldest of the team, was reserved for the least experienced member of each outing.  His personal guest comments book at the Stables was chocked full of children’s doodles and disjointed eight-year-old handwriting.  He was the easy horse, the one little kids could be trusted on.  Amber, our guide, rode Burris who was the trickiest of horses, while the girls rode the younger, faster steeds Mirth and Patchy.

We set out together into the dry riverbed in a light rain away from the foothills and into the vast planes leading out towards the Tasman Sea.  Already, Leo’s feisty temperament was beginning to show.  Leo didn’t want to lead, but he didn’t want to be in the back either.  He had a particular place in the middle that suited him just fine and God forbid Mirth or Patchy try to disrupt the order.  Walking through the flat fields and winding riverbeds was fine, but soon we kicked it into second-gear.

Trotting, for the inexperienced rider, is a pain in the ass.  Unsure of the procedure, I popped up and down erratically until my stomach curled and my man-parts ached.  I knew that there was some sort of rhythm I was meant to achieve, but Leo and I were on different pages.  Sheepishly, I asked the girls for advice.  The subsequent trotting took a gradual turn for the “semi-painful” and an eventual turn for the “too numb to care.”

Galloping was out of the question for me, but that was just about the only thing on Leo’s mind other than chewing grass and pooping.  When Mirth and Patchy got a chance to gallop through an open field, Leo went ballistic, sending me fumbling to catch my camera while maintaining a firm grip on the reins.  Later, we passed through a field of cows uneventfully, but the pigs in the distance were another story altogether.  Leo stood rigid upon hearing the squealing swines, and no amount of coaxing could put him back in motion.  We walked the horses past the pigs and began the painful process of trotting again on our way back to the stable.

Dismounting my dear Leo, I just about buckled to the ground.  A few karate kicks later, my legs regained their strength and I felt as though I had conquered mighty Leo and all the trickery he had put me through.  When I woke up the next morning, I realized just how wrong I was.  My back ached and my thighs burned.  I couldn’t wear my wallet in the back pocket of my pants because it hurt too much.

I moped around the office wining when my boss Hielke asked, “How long did you ride?  No one rides for two hours, you’re just asking to be hurt.”  As I came to realize, Hielke is an accomplished dressage competitor in New Zealand with her name featured prominently in many equestrian magazines.  I was curious what it meant to be in the sport of dressage…

“Do you jump fences?”

“No”

“Do you race, like a jockey?”

“No”

“Is it like chasing foxes or playing polo?”

“No”

“So what do you do with the horses?”

Dressage is something like competitive horse training and it is a legitimate Olympic sport.  I browsed through the horse magazines with her for a good while and we chatted about the idiosyncrasies of the equine.  I learned a wealth of knowledge that I wish I had known twenty-four hours earlier.  Before Hielke left for the night, she turned back with a smirk, “so, you want to go for a ride tomorrow?”

Leo