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)

A Familiar Farewell

It’s funny… Earth seems like such a large place until you dab your feet into each of her seas.  I feel so comfortable in New Zealand that it’s hard to believe the rush I felt as I exited the plane in Auckland eight months ago.  Everything was significant then – my first steps south of the equator, the cackling over kiwi accents and nights asleep underneath the stars of the southern hemisphere.  Everything was new and exciting.

Eight months in, I am burdened by speeding tickets, damages to the car, dwindling hours at work and escalating power bills.  The vacation morphed into the real world I thought I had escaped.  My child-like wonder for everything new will never pass, but in an attempt to escape the familiar, I have hit it head on.

However, it’s a detached familiarity.  There is a sad realization when you find that you have become numb to the here and there of life.  People you grow to cherish slide in and out of your life with an eerie ease.  You learn to treasure the now, catalogue the past, and look forever forward to the future for fear of tearing up over the could-have-been.

I came to this country halfway across the world alone.  In doing so, I allowed myself to become whoever and whatever I wanted without any tattlers from my past to call out my bluff.

Charles, my best friend growing up, went by Richard during the years he lived with his family in China.  He said he was a different person there.  He even had me convinced one cloudy autumn day that he had been a child spy that killed someone.  Another childhood friend, Elliot, was suddenly struck with agoraphobia and came back from his mental breakdown as John.

I always wanted that superhuman ability to change who I was.  But, if I’ve learned anything, solo travel only brings you closer to realizing who you are at the core.

So, it is with excitement and a slight hesitation that I head to the North Island to travel with my good friend Abby from home (that is to say one of the places I call home – the Virgin Islands).  I am leaving the South Island that I have grown so accustomed to, for a brief soirée with the North Island before I set out to dab my foot in another sea – before I get too comfortable again (or before the bills and tickets threaten to put me on the street).

But, before I go, here is one more look at the South Island.  I have moved every file off of my computer and onto an external hard drive just to keep up with the excessive amount of photos I have amassed.  If I told you how many pictures of sheep and cows I have slowing down my Mac right now you would surely buckle over.

As MarkontheMap approaches its 1st birthday, I am curious to hear what your favorite stories or photos were.  Or, if you have any suggestions or comments for the blog, I’d been keen to hear those as well.  It’s nice to get a little feedback once in a while.

Alas, here are a few shots (that never quite made the cut) that sum up the beauty, purity, and quietude of the South Island.


The Glimmer of the Glowworm

Five minutes earlier, I had gracelessly hitched myself over a fence post reading, “no safe access.  Beyond this point the track has been damaged by flooding.”  Unbothered by the recent downpours myself, I thought nothing of it and there I was, in the rainforest with my pocket-sized flashlight peering over the edge of a muddy cliff at eleven o’clock at night.

I was still a little flustered from my close encounter with the possum.  I had walked with my flashlight pointed down glancing up at the impeccably starry night.  When I raised my flashlight and lowered my head, I found myself two feet away from his beady eyes.  He was much larger than I’d imagined and my mind wandered back to a conversation I had with a local earlier that day about the booming market for possum fur.  The thought passed, our stare down ended, and I backed up as he scurried up the mossy tree.

In the daylight, these woods are a stunning, sloppy mess of fern and vine.

The lower hills lay draped in a shag carpet of moss and lichen divided by a series of rocky streams.  Threads of red vine are the only thing to interrupt the innumerable shades of green.  Yet, there I was in the darkness of the night at the edge of the rainforest staring down at the rushing glacial water of the Waiho River three hundred feet below.  The suspension bridge leading out of town lay dimly lit in the distance and the dense, humid air curled in the glow of the flashlight

It was a boring evening and I was not having the best of days, so an hour earlier I had grabbed my flashlight and started walking.   I made my way through town towards the entrance to the Terrace Walk, just past Our Lady of the Alps Catholic Church.  My goal for the evening’s hike was to the see the glowworms, but walking through the rainforest alone at night felt like being tossed onto the set of The Dark Crystal.

Many who have walked this trail have come back disappointed.  I can only assume they were searching for something resembling the 1980’s bestselling glow-in-the-dark Playskool toy.  Or, maybe they never made it to the ravine at the end, settling for the less brilliant displays dotting the sides of the trail under upturned trunks and partially obscured hollows.  To make it to the end, one must walk along the muddy ledge that looks as if it may once have been twice as large, loosing half of its width to the riverbed below.

Arriving in the ravine, the few green dots glowing in the woods felt a bit underwhelming.  However, with a little patience, the woods began to sparkle like a thousand Lite Brites, the 1980’s toy that more aptly conveys the look of this phenomenon.  The more my eyes adjusted to the dark, the more glowing specks appeared, rising up the ravine and blending into the twinkling stars above.

The ravine sparkled as I put the flashlight in my pocket and stood alone in the glowing darkness of the rainforest for over an hour.  After fifteen minutes of silence, I put my ear buds in, set my iPod to some electro tracks and danced in the darkness of my own private dance floor.  I felt like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia conducting the hyper real creatures as the sorcerer of this magical wonderland.  I have a vivid imagination, but this dichotomy of dancing in the rainforest at midnight to the beat of electronic music just about sums me up.

The glowworms brought me back to those special nights in the Caribbean when the moon was new and the sky dark.  Those nights when the conditions were just right and the glowing phytoplankton came out to dance with my every splash, twist and turn through the translucent water.

In the sea, my movements, and those of the marine life all around me controlled the luminosity.  On land, the gleam of the glowworm radiates throughout the night.  Both the glowworms and the plankton are bioluminescent organisms, but while most of the glowworms throughout the world are members of the beetle family, in New Zealand, they are actually gnats that spend most of their life in their larval stage.

What is it about the ability to glow in the dark that so fascinates us?  I’ve come to understand the power of thousands of small bits of creation joining together to dazzle us with the humdrum of their daily existence.  I’m struck by their ability to bring light into the darkness.  When I was five years old, I raced to catch a midsummer firefly between my tiny fingers as it meandered through the cul-de-sac at twilight.  I’ve been captivated by the glimmering glow of the bioluminescent ever since.