So what happened before February 5th 2007? This page gives the background on how I ended up where I am:
Although my parents had traveled the world at a time when it was less common to do so, during the time my sister and I were growing up, our journeys were confined to the states; the states between California and Iowa to be more precise. Most often our summer vacations consisted of driving via the national parks of the western U.S. to and from Iowa where both sets of my grandparents and a number of aunts and uncles lived. While my sister always wanted to know when we would get there, I loved the journeys, camping and hiking in the national parks which contain some of the most stunning geographic scenery anywhere in the world. My father was always an enthusiastic amateur photographer. My early training in photography came on these trips as I ran around helping him to spot good angles for photographs, while my mom and sister waited, not always patiently. Over the course of my childhood I visited almost every national park between Iowa and California. Technically my first journey abroad was a road trip of this type through B.C. and Alberta, Canada to a family reunion in Saskatchewan. Although Canada is an incredibly beautiful country, at the risk of drawing hate mail from my Canadian family members and readers, it seemed to me to be culturally little more than the northern United States.
My first real trip abroad, or overseas to please the Canadians, came after I had graduated high school. My father was taking a group of students to India for a semester, and my mother, sister, and I could all go along for free. For me it meant delaying my entry to Luther College for a year, and my sister would be home schooled for the semester we were in India. Since our flight was routed through London, we were able to visit my aunt and uncle in Germany and my other aunt working at the US embassy in Prague before heading on to India. On the way back I arranged to have a two month layover in London to backpack through Europe. Looking back, it was that first trip to India in 1994 that has more so than any other one event shaped the way my life has unfolded since. There is something about the connection of India and my family. I think my father would also agree that one of the most influential events in his life (I won’t say most since I think my mom may have strong case for that one) was accepting a Fulbright scholarship to India after he finished his bachelor’s degree in history. Neither my father nor I were the first to have our lives shaped by this land, just one in a long line of visitors over the centuries, who has been unknowingly seduced by a country whose borders may be geographical but whose grip on the soul knows no boundaries.
It wasn’t love at first sight; it never is with India, a country which pushes its entire dizzying kaleidoscope of complexity in the face of a first time visitor. Looking at India is like looking at sun, overwhelming and painful to stare at it directly, all of its colors combined into one blinding light, but send it through a prism, reflect it off a surface, and the colors, complexities, and beauty of its components emerge. Blinded by the sun that is India, I stared out of the window on that first bus ride from the Madras airport mesmerized and appalled by the mass of humanity, poverty and filth that lay outside the window, unable to see the colors amidst the intensity. At the time of that first trip I was much more excited about the European half of the trip than the Indian one, although it was the Indian half that generated the most thought, and shaped my views. It’s a country that forces you think about the meaning of life, what’s important and what’s not, and to re-examine one’s own belief systems, especially for me at the young but maturing age of 18. It’s not something that happens immediately and I didn’t notice it so much at the time, but looking back I can trace the thoughts that eventually led me to develop my own philosophies about what was important to me and how I should live my life to those four months in India.
In addition to the cerebral aspects, that trip is where I really fell in love with the adventure of life on the road. My first trip on my own was going from Madras (now Chennai) to the ancient remains of the Vijayanagar Kingdom at Hampi, a relatively out of the way place in those days requiring multiple bus and train transfers in areas few foreigners ventured on their own. It was baptism by fire as far as international travel goes. After a few trips in India on my own, navigating Europe for a few months afterwards proved to be a cinch.
I returned from that trip with a third love, travel, to go along with basketball, and science. I would have to wait to indulge this new passion while I concentrated on the latter two. In the fall of 1995 I entered Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, playing on the basketball team and studying physics. Despite my math and physics majors, computer science minor, I still managed to take at least one non-science class each semester, taking classes in philosophy, religion, and history to round out my schedule.
When it came time to apply for graduate school, I applied to all schools in California, anxious to leave the Midwestern winters behind and return to the sunshine of my West Coast upbringing. A chance conversation with a graduate student at Northwestern University (where I was involved in a summer research program for undergrads) prompted me to apply to the University of California, Santa Barbara as well as Stanford, University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Diego. The student had mentioned he almost went to UCSB and they had a very good materials program there, so I looked into it since I knew Santa Barbara would be a nice place to live. I ended up choosing UCSB. It’s interesting how such a significant decision affecting the people I would meet and the field I would study can hinge on a seemingly insignificant piece of idle conversation.
With Luther ending in May on a semester system and UCSB starting on a quarter system in late September I had a four month long summer. I finally had the opportunity to travel back to Asia. I opportunistically cashed in mutual fund stock I had bought with surplus funds from my summer jobs and which had done very well for me during the dot com bubble of the late 90s and I took a three month trip to Asia, spending two months in China and a month in Thailand and Cambodia. When I left I thought, like most Americans, that a three month trip was a long time; I soon realized it was very short. I met people on that trip who had been traveling years at time, and I resolved that some day I’d like to travel without time constraints with the complete freedom to choose the path which seemed most interesting to me at the time. The trip also boosted my confidence as a traveler and with India and China under my belt I was certain I could go pretty much anywhere. It was also the trip where I started to develop myself as a photographer, shooting slide film on my dad’s old all manual Pentax screw mount. I’m sure I could have gotten better pictures from that trip had I carried a more modern, easier to use camera instead of a relic from the sixties, but as far as a learning experience goes, it was invaluable. Having to set all the parameters myself necessitated the understanding of what they did, and taught me patience as well as how to set up a shot.
I enjoyed graduate school at UCSB. I enjoyed the people I met. I enjoyed nights out on State Street. I enjoyed my research. I enjoyed working for my advisor who is not only an incredibly smart scientist but a well rounded and grounded individual who knew there was more to life than just the lab. I enjoyed mountain biking in the hills above Santa Barbara, and going wine tasting in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley. It was a comfortable life but the call of the road was still out there. I was able to indulge my wanderlust somewhat with trips to Burma over Christmas of 2001, to Peru to hike the Inca trail in spring 2003, and to Egypt in the spring of 2004. Another way to indulge my love of travel while furthering my progress toward a degree and save me money as well was to attend conferences and visit collaborators in interesting places. I managed a couple trips to Germany, and trips to Japan, India, and Canada in this way in addition to domestic destinations. As I progressed though graduate school I continued to enjoy my research and work in the lab but I became less certain of what I wanted to do after I graduated. The typical choices for someone with a Ph.D. in semiconductor materials are to either get a job in industry, or pursue the academia route, most often initially though a post doc with the aim of eventually becoming a professor. The people I knew who got jobs in industry made good money in the neighborhood of $100,000 a year, but invariably within 6 months disliked their jobs. However they were hooked on the money to support their cars, new condo or house, and comforts of the professional world, working long hours and eagerly awaiting weekends, at least those who did not have to work on Saturday as well, and their two weeks of vacation a year. I had a vision of myself in that life and choked with disgust as I saw the years fly by, the next the same as the previous, dull and ordinary. Above all I wanted an interesting and adventurous life. I didn’t need much money; I just needed to live, to experience, to grow. There are of course many ways to do this and having an interesting and engaging life does not necessitate travel, but for me at this particular time I knew my route to this goal would be through seeing and experiencing the world. As for academia, as I neared my graduation date, I was not ready for it. I enjoy working in the lab and doing research well enough, but at this point what excited me, made me feel alive, is the rush I get hopping on a bus not knowing what awaits me at the other end, not completing an experiment with a great result. As I became closer to finishing, I became more and more certain that the time for me to take the long trip I had wanted was now. I had the money having lived frugally during grad school and, again riding a stock market bubble, having pumped money into the market after 9/11. I was free of attachments, not much in the way of possessions, no relationship; certainly if ever there was a time, the time was now. I cashed in the frequent flier miles I had racked up on all those conference trips throughout graduate school, and booked a flight to Hong Kong. Five days after I had filed my thesis I was flying high over the Pacific and so my journey Across Asia began.
-Micah Hanson, February 2009