I spent 4-and-a-half years working on What Remains of Edith Finch so when the game shipped I was ready for a break. I moved out of my apartment, put all my stuff in storage, and spent the next 6 months traveling overseas. I chose countries to visit based entirely on how much I liked their food. Here’s a few of my strongest memories from that trip (not including the food, which I covered on my food blog).
Walking to the airport in Kathmandu. Google Maps said it would take an hour and a half to walk there from where I was staying so logistically it seemed feasible. If you ask the Internet about trying this the advisability is mixed. The biggest concerns seemed to be the circuitous route, lack of signage, careless drivers, and packs of feral dogs. Of course it would have been easy to take a taxi but since I had an afternoon flight and nothing planned for the day it felt like it’d be more of an adventure to walk. It turned out to be quite pleasant, culminating in a little group of huts on the side of the road just across from the airport where fresh, curry-infused flatbread was coming out of a wood-fired oven.
The waiters everywhere who did their best to talk me out of the things I’d ordered, usually because they thought I’d gotten too much food. And they were right, I HAD ordered way more than I could eat. I felt a little guilty getting whole entrees when I expected to only take a bite or two of each, but I’d traveled around the world to try as many new foods as possible and step #1 of that plan was ORDERING as many new foods as possible. My favorite exchange was with a waiter in Kathmandu who considered the half-dozen entrees I’d requested and paused for a moment, then tactfully asked: “Your friend also come?”
The smell that hits you when you open the doors to the port cellars in Porto. These are long warehouses carved into the hillside, packed with thousands of oak barrells full of port that’s slowly evaporating through them. It’s not just that it smells nice (which it does), what I remember is that it smells ancient and harmonious. You get the sense that the oak and port flavors have been mingling in that air for centuries.
Being in Lisbon for two days. Everywhere else I traveled I tried to stay at least 5 days but visiting Lisbon was a last-minute decision and the timing worked out such that I only had 1 full day there. But I think that was for the best, since the whirlwind nature of the trip added a nice atmosphere of drama. It felt like Before Sunrise if Ethan Hawke had never run into Julie Delpy and instead he spent the day walking all over the city trying pasteis de nata, drinking handmade cherry liqueurs from several bars specializing in it, and watching the sunset from an old castle overlooking the city.
Having egg tarts again in Hong Kong after I’d had them for the first time in Lisbon a few months earlier. The Hong Kong versions were clearly inspired by the pasteis de nata but were also very much their own thing.
The Turkish man I met on the streets of Berlin who asked directions in broken English, then made a joke I couldn’t understand and proceeded to try to dance with me. I felt awkward and a little guilty as I consciously monitored the safety of the wallet and phone in my pockets while at the same time tried to enjoy this strange moment. Nothing happened to my wallet or phone, but a few minutes later my stomach dropped a little when I realized he’d stolen my watch.
The enormous bats in Sri Lanka. These were memorable for two reasons: their 4+ foot wingspans and the fact that I saw them flying around in the middle of downtown in the most densely populated city in the country. After I saw my first giant bat fly overhead in the early afternoon I followed it to a tree by the side of a busy road and found another 40+ bats roosting and a steady stream of bats coming and going.
Waiting for the bathroom in Chengdu. Shortly after leaving a Sichuan restaurant specializing in pork intestines, which was probably my favorite meal of the trip, my digestive system began to protest. I had a 45 minute walk ahead of me through a light-industrial district that had shut down for the night so I resigned myself to a long period of delicate shuffling. Then I saw a public bathroom across the street. Public bathrooms in China are pretty rare and I have no idea why this one had been built here or why it was still open but at the time it felt like semi-magical. My euphoria diminished a bit after waiting several minutes for a convoy of large earth-moving vehicles to pass. I was very tempted to dart out into the modest gaps between them but ultimately it just felt like too embarrassing a circumstance in which to die under.
Driving around Switzerland in an RV with my friend Flavien. Flavien is a French artist who worked on our first game, The Unfinished Swan. He was taking a year off and had bought a mid-size RV to drive around Europe in. After I’d just spent several weeks walking around by myself in unfamiliar cities it was refreshing to be out in the countryside catching up with an old friend while visiting a series of improbable stone bridges in the Alps.
Riding the 3rd class train to Kandy in Sri Lanka. With no air-conditioning and (by the time I arrived) no seats left I spent the 3 hour trip holding on to a handrail, standing next to an open door as the train chugged its way up into the mountains passing villages, jungle, and tea plantations. I never actually used the facilities but the sight of the 3rd class bathroom still haunts me. It was a tiny room with corrugated metal on all surfaces, a small, dark hole in the floor and NOTHING ELSE. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a Silent Hill hellscape. I’m not even sure if the hole was connected to anything. Maybe it just dropped straight to the tracks? Anything seems possible in that place.
Getting my laptop fixed in Chengdu. It’s strange how much energy we spend avoiding hassles when so many of our strongest, most enjoyable memories are tinged with adversity. When my laptop stopped booting up I was hoping I could take it to the Dell store in Chengdu and have them fix it. Things turned out to be a little more complicated (and more interesting). A salesman at the store told me I had to go to the service center down the street and offered to guide me there. Our 15 minute walk ended at a door with a chain locked around it, then a service entrance down a back alley, then the realization that the center had actually moved to another part of town. My salesman friend turned to me and, using his phone to auto-translate, asked “you ride bike?” Yes. I ride bike. So we rented a pair of bikes and after bouncing around between a couple more service centers finally managed to find one — just as it was closing — that could fix my laptop. By the time I left their office everything else on the floor of their mid-size office building had shut down. But there was a final test: the elevators had inexplicably stopped responding. The solution to the puzzle turned out to be a fire exit on the other side of the building that someone had propped open. Once I found that it was smooth, uneventful sailing.
Taking a taxi to the airport in Sri Lanka at 2 am. Transportation options can be pretty limited early in the morning so I was quite happy to see a number of tuk-tuk-style taxis zooming around. The trip evolved into a bit of an adventure, which was fine since I’d left plenty of time. Our first stop was a bus parked next to the beach. This turned out to be the driver’s brother, who was also a driver, as well as a drunk and was sleeping off whatever he’d had that night. Money was dropped off (or maybe picked up? it was unclear) and then we had a pleasant 30 minute chat on the way to the airport in which the driver talked all about his young family, the crops they were growing, the birthday he was celebrating tomorrow, the time he spent working on container ships in the Middle East and why he ultimately came home. Our route took us through the small town he grew up in so he talked about that for awhile too. When I mentioned how much I liked Sri Lankan watalappam, a cardamom spiced coconut custard, he pulled off at a roadside cafe with what he considered the best watalappan in the area. Judging from the lively crowd there at 3am I believe this opinion was a popular one. And the watalappam was good, up there with the best I’ve ever had, as was the ride to the airport.
The plaque in Hong Kong that described how British sailors reacted to misunderstanding the name of the (already inhabited) island they had arrived at. When they heard “Hong Kong” the sailors mistakenly thought it referred to the island when it was actually the name of the city they were in. Although they soon realized their mistake they chose not to correct it because, according to the plaque, “they found it inconvenient to change the name.” So instead they renamed the city to Aberdeen and the island became Hong Kong. The arrogance and insensitivity this implies is staggering but it’s also a tiny bit impressive that men like this once walked the earth.
Watching hawks circle a junkyard on the outskirts of Kathmandu. I don’t know if the hawks were permanent residents or migrants, but either way it was a majestic event in the middle of a mountain of garbage.
Being back home
I’m really glad I was able to spend so much time traveling because it cured me of the fantasy of perpetual travel. On previous trips I had such a great time that part of me wished I never had to come home. What I’ve realized now is that after about 5 weeks it stops feeling like a vacation and starts feeling like your new, regular life. As if your job had become getting to and from unfamiliar airports, filling out customs declarations, studying the layout of this week’s subway system, etc.
It’s still enjoyable to see and eat new things but the constant, low-level hassles start to wear on you. The first time you have to use Google Translate to figure out which buttons to press on the air conditioner in your room is fun. Doing that every week with a new air conditioner loses its charm pretty quickly.
For me, the novelty of novelty began to wear off. It takes a lot of energy constantly moving around, which isn’t so bad except that it means there’s less time and energy for doing other things.
I now appreciate how comparatively easy life is at home, where the conventions are familiar and I speak the language fluently. As a local, there’s so many things I can explore in Los Angeles that I’d never, ever get to experience as a traveler passing through.
For example, a few days ago I went into a cheese shop and had a lengthy conversation in the local language (English), getting suggestions for mild sheep milk cheeses, which I followed up with a question about where to go for goose fat and learned about a European sausage shop nearby that might have it, but that definitely carries specialty meats for South African expats that sound worth checking out. The adventures are a little smaller and less cinematic, but I love how seamlessly one small adventure leads to another when you have time and energy to really explore a place.
I was excited to leave and now I’m even more excited to be back.