Left my heart in the Blue Mountains, Australia

August 26th, 2017

AustraliaTravel Writing Award

Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my arrival. It was even reported that a young foreign college student was beaten by a mob simply because of the color of his skin. In this digital age, of course there was a video highlighting the horrific event. I was willfully entering into a country where the color of my skin, my gender and my outspoken demeanor would all serve as my own prison.

My passion for culture and history have created a simple awareness in my mind that I would surely be stoned should I ever let my temper or attitude run free within the streets of Delhi. This diverse mixture of strong will, independence and a desire for freedom could prove to be very dangerous for me. I literally felt trapped within my own mind; the onslaught of stares, lewd comments, sneers and racial prejudice was almost too much to bear.

In my hometown I am loved, adored, resected and given special treatment everywhere I go. In India, I was a spectacle, a foreigner, an animal on display at the zoo, an alien that might cause havoc. It’s similar to going to the gym and feeling like everyone is staring as you bend over in your hot pink yoga pants to contort in some ridiculous yoga pose. I was the center of attention everywhere I went but not in a paparazzi way, in the most uncomfortable way. Even my espadrilles and cute peach summer dress couldn’t deflect the way their stares permeated my skin and grasped at me. Who knew that a simple stroll through the market would have me clinging to my guide, questioning my dependence on him?

At home, everyone is consumed with their own lives, or if your gazes cross they might throw you a cool southern wave. As a true Texas woman, full of fire and venom, I remained adamant that I would exercise the same freedoms that I enjoyed at home, those simple pleasures. At the age of sixteen, everyone revels in the freedom afforded by that shiny new driver’s license and whatever car we can get our hands on.

So that was my plan; I would travel the way the natives do and then I would surely avoid the stares as I waited for my daily Uber driver to find me among the crowds. After a little research and a few conversations of Hinglish (Hindi and English) I headed to a local rental shop to peruse the lot for a suitable scooter. A local friend had let me borrow his Hero Maestro scooter and I had fallen in love with the look and the swiftness in which it allowed me to anonymously maneuver the heavy Delhi traffic. I negotiated a great price for a used rental “Scooty” but was quickly informed that as an American, that I couldn’t rent it unless I handed over my passport.

I was outraged, how could I hand over my one lifeline to go home? My little blue book, which I protected with my life, was the one thing that could give me the freedom that I sought, but could also be my jail sentence if I were to lose it. How could I trust this unkempt, sweaty, no suit, flip flop wearing, sketchy Indian man with my life, my American passport?

I shouted that it was illegal and that he was crazy, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t rent a scooter. Defeated, I booked another Uber to go back home, so thankful for my “Hinglish” translator who was able to guide the driver to our proper destination. Homesickness began to set in, missing conventional Uber drivers, who actually know where they are going. I began to miss the freedom of jumping in my car at home and taking an impromptu drive to the beach.

The reality was that my independence in India was dependent upon others, on the kindness of strangers. A few phone calls later, we set out to buy a scooter, because surely I could flash some cash and buy a scooter. The shiny new and gently used scooters gave me hope and a glimpse of the fleeting freedom I would have to drive around the city. I disregarded the stares and the parade of gawkers as I picked out my new found freedom. We negotiated a reasonable price, only struggling through the “Hinglish” a little, thanks to WhatsApp.

It’s amazing how well the natives could read and write English, but yet couldn’t understand the spoken language.  I handed over a cool 40,000 Rupees, the equivalent of $619 USD, for a used 2015 Hero Maestro Edge. The sleek gray color and the amped up motor made breezing through the streets that much more glorious.

I reveled in the feel of the wind in my face as we raced past the ever present (Delhi) traffic jam. I could quickly speed away, away from the spectators, away from the crowds and for a few moments become an incognito tourist. I was free at last; freedom that had been unknowingly acquired through the dependency of others.

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The Freedom of Solitude in England’s Lake District

I’m not really one for planning.

I go on wilderness camping trips with two hours of preparation, undertake international travel without an itinerary, and once moved to Seoul at three weeks’ notice. I’m cautious and aware of the threats of the world, but I’m also fortunate to be young and untethered. Why not take spontaneous advantage of that freedom?

So when I found myself battling through the bustling platforms and boarding a bus at London’s Victoria Station, I wasn’t daunted by the fact that I had only a faint idea of my destination. I had the memory of an online map of the Lake District, a result of my daydreaming at my desk during endless exam preparations back in Germany. I also had my ticket, which informed me that I would disembark after many hours in a village called Grasmere, which I had chosen at random. Most importantly, I had my faithful backpack, hiking boots battered from my days of traipsing through the Minnesota wilderness, and some chocolate.

The journey was mostly unmemorable, which is the best thing a bus journey can be. We barrelled irreverently across the rolling meadows of England’s South, entering the North accompanied by the region’s well-known pair: gale-force winds and ominously dark clouds. We rumbled along merrily, the roads shrinking and the landscape’s drama growing as the rain pelted harshly on the windows.

There’s an odd feeling that can occur during solo travel. Without a companion to keep up appearances for, doubts can creep in. (‘Why did you think this was a good idea? This isn’t your country. No one else does this kind of thing. Did you really think this was going to be fun? You have no idea what you’re doing.’) Given the chance to think what it wants, the mind will not always perform to its best potential. I might have been free of commitments and obligations, but not from doubts.

The reason I had given no consideration to the destination on my bus ticket was that it was merely a starting point. I intended to walk, camp, and repeat, for ninety miles, until reaching Liverpool. I couldn’t afford the kind of holiday most people take in the Lake District, but I had the resources and the skills to do this. I had the courage, too, although in my experience, courage doesn’t come without second-guesses. (‘You know you’re going to end up sleeping in a hedge, right?’)

“Are you headed into the village, love?” The sweet-voiced bus conductor approached me, the only passenger destined for Grasmere. The village was just visible through the downpour, down a small side road. “We normally stop the coach here, but with this weather we can drop you in the village if you like.” I looked out into the bleak half-darkness, and chuckled at my idea of vacation—what most people would consider unpleasant at best, and intolerably awful at worst.

“This is fine. I’m not actually going into the village,” I told the conductor, who was looking, slightly troubled, at my gear. “I have a raincoat, don’t worry.” I smiled at her, mustering a convincing amount of confidence. (‘She thinks you’re absolutely stupid. She’s probably going to go tell the driver there’s a crazy woman on the bus. Who takes a bus to a village in the middle of nowhere and then doesn’t go to the village? She thinks you’re a criminal, or a vagrant.’)

The cacophony of my own self-doubt and imagined judgement was deafening as I gathered my things into a compact, waterproof bundle and hoisted it onto my back. Thanking the driver and the conductor, I relished my final moment in the dark, warm, safety of the bus, and stepped out into the rain. The bus drove off in a spray of watery exhaust and was gone.

I stood on the side of the small, empty road. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t too dark, either: the tinted windows of the bus had deceived me. I looked at the watercolor of deep greens and greys around me, and listened. The sudden silence of my surroundings and my mind was the sound of my freedom.

Completely alone on that road, with the distance growing between me and my last conversation, I was liberated from the expectations and judgements I was accustomed to from myself and others; I was free to rely on my own skills and knowledge, and to pursue my own path, quite literally. With the awareness of strangers’ perceptions gone, there was space in my mind for gratitude, enjoyment, and the curiosity that drove me to take such a trip in the first place. The beginnings of these realizations washed over me with the rain. I adjusted my backpack and started walking.

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Freeing My Mind and My Clothes in Nagano, Japan

My sophomore summer studying in Nagano, Japan opened my eyes to a myriad of wonders. Some I expected like Shinto shrines, bonsai trees, drunk businessmen and geishas. Others, like beautiful orange, white and black-spotted koi (what we have in garden ponds) swimming under sewer grates and the 60-year old naked female body, I didn’t anticipate.

That first trip overseas at 20-years old was momentous for many reasons – I gained independence and self-assurance by light-years, improved my language study, and adapted and embraced new, and sometimes, uncomfortable situations. And, I was forced to let go of my control freak status. We had no agenda – our chaperones gave us little to no details prior to trips, and we had no syllabus for our classroom instruction.

As part of my language immersion class, one weekend we were whisked away from the Tokyo suburbs to Nagano, home of the Winter Olympics, fog-covered mountains and the famous Japanese onsens, or hot springs.

There were ten U.S. and Canadian collegiates traveling together, and we rode an express train at 150 mph with the windows down. Along the windy way, the humid clime of Tokyo gave way to the cool breeze of the north, and the concrete and metal mountains of the city were washed away by the verdant trees and moss-covered highlands.

I had made a good friend while in Japan, Michelle. We would go into Tokyo together most days after school and explore, shop, eat and drink. It was great because she was one of those people that I would’ve been friends if we had met on my college campus. We weren’t just friends forced by proximity or situation – going to school for 8 weeks in a foreign land.
She was a more experienced international traveler, but her Japanese wasn’t as strong as mine, so we were a good yin and yang pair, complementing the other’s naivety.

One afternoon, after touring Nagano, we were taken to a beautiful onsen, a hot springs spa with beautiful lacquered bamboo, elegant rice paper walls and the sound of gentle water flowing. You felt more relaxed just by sitting in the lobby.

Being the smart and savvy travelers, we thought we were, Michelle and I brought along our bathing suits, so we were well prepared to take a dip in the healing and calming waters of the hot springs.

We were taken back to the women’s locker room and directed toward the towels, bathrobe and slippers, and shower (very important before entering the hot springs), but under no circumstance was clothing was allowed in the onsen as it was seen to dirty the water.

News to us, Michelle spun around on one heel and promptly said she wouldn’t do it. I danced on both feet, not sure what to do. This was a true Japanese experience, was I going to let my modesty get in the way of enjoying a cultural tradition?

Before I lost my nerve, I quickly showered and robed and headed outside where steam was drifting up from the water.

The only people in the onsen were a bunch of 60- to70-year old Japanese women. They eyed me knowingly, but kindly as I dipped my toes in, walked down the first step and said “totemo atsui desu nee.” (It’s really hot.) They nodded in agreement and nudged me forward with their sweet smiles. I took off the robe and sat down, gritting my teeth to bear the heat of the volcanic-heated waters.

Several questions ensued in Japanese as I told them I was studying near Tokyo and was from the U.S. Once I satisfied their queries, they got back to their little group and I was able to sit and enjoy their chatter as I closed my eyes amidst the damp, steamy air.

When my skin started resembling the shade of an Indiana tomato, and I couldn’t take the heat anymore (about 15 minutes), I hopped out, put my towel on and went back for another shower before getting dressed.

Even though it was more than 20 years ago, it was a defining moment for me – to live in the moment and embrace my surroundings and not cringe under my clothes. They say the hot waters are rejuvenating, but they did so much more than give me energy.

And, so I have gratitude for that trip and toward those Japanese women, for helping me free my mind and break from my norm.

Since then, among others, I have ridden a motorbike with four people at the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, ziplined down from the Great Wall of China and walked through a barrio in Venezuela – definitely out of my comfort zone, but definitely worth the experience.

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Dancing in the Storm in the Appalachian

The thunder cracked and I let out a scream. I didn’t just see the lightning, I felt it. These were the Great Smoky Mountains and the weather could change as quickly my mood. The sky had shifted from blue to ominous and I knew I had to to keep hiking. I knew I had to get down.

When I had made the decision to hike all 2,189 of the Appalachian Trail, a footpath spanning from Georgia to Maine, I knew I would face some challenges including inclement weather. I had never been backpacking by myself before and on top of that mountain when the storm rolled in I racked my head to try and remember some advice. All I could seem to come up with was to stay off ridge lines and maybe something about rocks. I was definitely on a ridge line and I was surrounded by rocks.

The decision to hike the Appalachian Trail was born in a quest for freedom. I wanted the feeling of being the only person I could see, I wanted to live wild and stand on top of mountains. I wanted to look at the stars and feel small but secure with my place in the universe. I wanted the freedom that was palpable and pure.

I began my hike staying in groups of people. Trusting the responsibility of daily decision making to the strangers around me. When to get more water, how many miles to hike, where and when to take breaks. I was self-conscious about everything and used the people around me as a litmus to make sure I was doing it right.

As I began to log miles and cross state lines the trust I had in myself began to grow. More and more I began to hike alone, often for days at a time. Every decision to keep myself alive, healthy and happy was up to me. I had the freedom I had been searching for and I was hiking my own way. I stopped cross referencing my decisions and started to value my own intuition above any piece of gear I carried.

The freedom was exhilarating. I would wake up in beautiful places inside my tent, sunlight pouring in and choose to lay in bed for half the day. I stopped hiking miles earlier than I planned to take in a sunset over a grassy meadow. When the sun was gone and the stars came out fireflies lit up all around and I had to pinch myself to see if it was real. Without a conversation, deliberation, or permission I could do anything I wanted. I unstrapped my pack and jumped in a river in the middle of a hot day. I ate lunch hours early, I hiked into the night. My plans were fluid and malleable and no one needed to approve them. It was just me and the trail. This hike became mine.

Freedom is multifaceted and it has a price. It is exhilarating, liberating and makes you feel fiercely alive. But it is also isolation, loneliness, and fear. It’s not having anyone to count on. On the side of busy highways, I held out my thumb as semi trucks raced by. I jumped in strange cars and hoped for the best. I stood in awe of breathtaking scenery but I stood in awe alone. I got myself into some scary situations and had no one to turn to assure me I was fine. I turned to myself.

By myself, every accomplishment was sweeter, every challenge more trying every view more beautiful and every campsite earned. But to have those moments of self-satisfaction and empowerment I had to walk through fear, doubt, and loneliness. I had to release the urge to second guess myself. I had to let go of a lot, being free is being untethered.

On that April day in the Smokies, when the sky cracked open and the lightning was dangerously close, I thought about my options. I had to get down that mountain but I had the freedom to choose how. So I embraced the storm, I put on my headphones and I had a dance party all the way down. If I was going to die I was going to die dancing to Ace of Bass. The music have me courage, the dancing made me feel free and I accepted there was nothing I could do about the lightning but to keep walking north. I made it down, I made it down whipping my hair, and singing the words. My clothes were soaking and my smile was uncontainable.
Freedom is scary but freedom is worth it. The loneliness is real but so is the sense of accomplishment. Freedom is choosing how you get down the mountain. Freedom for me is choosing to dance.

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When Morocco Taught Me to Dance With My Fears

I stared at the outstretched hand in front of me. Its owner, a thirteen-year-old Moroccan girl with persuasive green eyes, had caught me peering through the doorway of a room at a traditional Berber wedding in Tamtattouchte, Morocco. The room was packed with at least three generations of Berber women who danced barefoot with colorful scarves knotted loosely around their hips. I’d lost myself in the different layers of rhythm as the women clapped, sang and beat a plastic drum filled with seeds and stones. When I’d locked my gaze with a pair bright green eyes, I’d snapped back from the doorway and hid behind my travel partner, Matt. But now here she was, with her hand outstretched, ready to dance. Green Eyes smirked. I knew I wouldn’t be let off easily.

It had been a month since Matt and I hitched our first ride from the ferry in Tangier to Meknés. Our trip through Portugal and Morocco had already changed my life. Instead of feeding my habitual thoughts of fear and anxiety, I’d begun to say yes to opportunities. In spite of my knotted gut and tight chest, I’d said yes to hitch hiking through Morocco with Matt. My heart, which had been broken for months, healed with every act of kindness I’d experienced; every ride, mint tea, toothy smile and hand-signed conversation that I’d said yes to.

Like most things on our trip, it was by chance that we met Mustapha on the side of the road in the High Atlas Mountains earlier that afternoon. He was in his twenties and had eyes so dark it gave the impression he wore eyeliner. In less than two minutes of meeting us he’d asked, “Would you like to come to a traditional Berber wedding? Matt and I exchanged a look that said ‘don’t you love how the universe has its own plans?’ We’d turned to Mustapha and said, “We’d love to.”

Green Eyes waited. For a moment I imagined the entire room of women laughing at me. My stomach flick-flacked. And then I asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”

I realized that the heavy armor of fear I’d chosen to wear restricted me. I remembered that real freedom is already inside me – it hits me in the face each time I abandon my fears and say yes. Freedom had sprung to life when I’d allowed myself to be stripped naked by a sturdy Berber woman who scrubbed me like a baby at a local hammam. I’d cried with laughter with the other women who watched. It had bubbled inside me when I caught my first ride from the side of the road in Lisbon. I wanted to be free from the fears that held me back. I wanted all the opportunities that life had to offer.

No sooner than I’d touched my palm to hers had she pulled me inside. The room of girls enveloped me. Green Eyes handed me a thin red scarf. I tied it around my waist and looked up at her, proud like a toddler who’s learned how to stand. But she threw back her head and cackled with laughter. The other women doubled over in stitches. Green Eyes shook her head.

She took the scarf from me and secured it around her hips. Without breaking eye contact, she began to move each hip up and down, so fast it became difficult to follow. After a few minutes she removed the scarf and fastened it around my hips. My heart froze. The terror must have shown on my face because the women screeched with laughter. The entire room had stopped to watch me dance.

I was at once acutely aware of my limbs, my clunky hiking boots and the heat that radiated off my face. Someone beat the rattle drum and it vibrated in my chest. Or was that my heart? I took a deep breath and began to move my hips up and down, up and down. I felt like a stiff white girl. I heard a few giggles but I closed my eyes and kept going. The rattle drum pounded.

Up and down. My cares began to melt. My cheeks ached from my smile and my chest burned with breathless laughter. Up and down. Faster, faster. My armor of fears cracked with every movement and tumbled down in pieces. I became more naked with each fragment that fell. Up and down. I was completely exposed. There was nothing left to hide behind. The women laughed and clapped, flicked their fingers and shouted, “Zweena!” Beautiful. They stroked my hair and hung onto my arms. My heart swelled with gratitude. Green Eyes smiled and without a second thought, I lifted the wine-colored pashmina from my neck and wrapped it around hers. “Saha,” she said. Thank you.

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Finding yourself in the middle of India

I wake at four o’clock. I walk to the window and look out. It’s black with no moon and no light. I have a deep realisation that there is nothing more to understand. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for. Actually, it’s not the what; I don’t know why I’m looking for answers at all. It seems the more I know, the less I understand, so why search? Just be pure, clean and happy.

Quickly, however, my thoughts turn to my nervousness regarding today’s purgation. The others have told me their horror stories of vomiting and defecating for hours on end. The benefit of an Ayurvedic purgation day is that there’s no morning medication and no six o’clock wake-up knock. I have a real desire to be warm today, so I open the heavy curtains to let the sunlight in. Heaven forbid if it was raining and dark today. The errand boy of the resident doctor here at the Ayurveda retreat in the hills of Southern India arrives with my purgation paste and hot water. Thankfully the paste is not as foul as the oily slime I have been taking every morning for the last ten days. He watches me swallow the gunk and explains that my body will now take over.

I lie down again and wait. Incongruently, I feel absolutely fine. I’m back in bed and I take turns reading and dozing. Nothing happens. There is either nothing left to purge or the paste is not strong enough. At eleven o’clock, the Doc checks in on me. He says that it’ll take time and that I only need a mild purging. Is this true or has his paste not worked? I sit outside on the balcony in my favourite chair and take in the mountainous view. I feel good, completely the opposite of how I thought I would.

Since purgation day, I have slept fantastically well and I now seem to automatically wake before six o’clock for my medication and then go back to bed and fall again into deep sleep. I then wake just before the breakfast bell. My routine now is to miss early morning yoga, sleep in, dine on a delightful papaya breakfast, chat in the garden with the other inmates, have my morning treatment and sit in the sun. I’ve come a long way from last week when I was scheming to cut my stay short. It is also apparent that as my mood wavered and I struggled to settle, the weather was also interchangeable. Since I have accepted being here,the weather has been bright and sunny. The last couple of days have been so good.

I feel so anti-thinking. I have a resistance to meditating, thinking too much or working stuff out. I enjoy the interactions with the people here now too. They’ve grown on me incredibly but mostly I enjoy the solitude of just being with myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. There’s always been something to do or someone to see. In my chair outside my cell in the sunshine, I feel an incredible sense of peace.

The overriding sensation is the feeling of not having to do anything. I mean it this way, in comparison to not having anything to do. I don’t remember a time like this. I don’t have to go to yoga, I don’t have to go to treatments and I don’t have to go to lunch if I don’t want to. Last week, I had to get up at six o’clock for yoga and I had to go again at midday. At home, even on the laziest days, I have to make the dinner or watch the football or cut the grass. I don’t have to do anything at all here. What an amazing feeling!

It really is my last day here. My last six o’clock wake up knock for my slime medication. It will be my last meal bell. The last time being confused that every clock here is set to a different time. The last of the warmest of interactions with all the staff here and the last time I will watch the old gardener chase the monkeys away with his stick. These little daily rituals are as much about being here as the treatments, the medications, the yoga, the meditations and the natural food. But also sadly no more sitting outside my cell in the sun fully in peace with the world. I feel like I’ve been here forever and it feels like I’ve been here for the shortest time too.

I’m happy I’ve done this and I’m even happier I have reached the end. It’s the weirdest, toughest and most smoothing thing I think I have ever done. I’m a bit afraid of joining life again.

Namaste.

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Green- Blue Sea, Cyprus

Independence feels like the cold green-blue water of the Mediterranean. To be more precise, the cold green-blue water around my island, Cyprus. I get this feeling of freedom around May when I get into my car and I’m driving to the southeast coast. The windows are open, the sun is shining on the spotless sky, and the radio plays summer hits. The temperature is just right-not too hot. I get a feeling that this time of the year is a celebration of life; cicadas are singing non-stop, insects fly around, and flowers are blooming. The scenery invites you to feel free and alive.
I park my car and I’m walking to the beach. This time of the year is not too crowded as most locals consider May a bit too cold for swimming. The smell of burning sand, fresh fish and sunscreen tickles my nostrils. I take off my sunglasses because I want to admire the green-blue of the sea; an original colour which blends with the golden sand and the light blue of the sky. I feel ready to dive into this infinite freedom; a freedom that seduces you to feel weightless and able to cheat gravity.
I take off my slippers; I’m not in a hurry, I want to enjoy the path to absolute freedom. My toes sink into the hot sand; I can feel the delicate texture of tiny rocks under my feet. Step by step I reach the spot where the water makes love to the sand. The two elements become one; earth and water meet and I stand there with my eyes fixed on the horizon. I continue walking, hypnotised by the sound of waves crushing on the rocks and my body in now half-covered by the clear, cold water. I feel cold but it’s not uncomfortable. It’s the kind of cold that makes your heart fly and prepares you for the first dive. I stay still for a while; I want my body to be adjusted as the first dive is always a great shock.
Here I go; head down, hands slightly above my head and jump! I’m free! I open my eyes and I can feel the sea salt burning me. It’s blurry but I feel I can see so clearly. I’m now a part of the green-blue water. I swim for some seconds, my body nearly touches the sandy bottom and I can only hear my heart beating and some squeaking which I never understood where it’s coming from. This is the moment I feel completely free; the few seconds where I become a part of nature and I am completely submerged in the green-blue water. This silence, this serenity, feels extraordinary; and I wish I could breathe underwater, I have the same dreams I had when I was a child: Why can’t I breathe underwater? Why can’t my world be as peaceful as this world down here?
I can feel the oxygen reducing in my body. I need to swim upwards towards the bright light. My head appears on the surface and I take a deep breath. Then, I move my legs upwards and I’m lying on the surface looking at the blue sky with my ears still submerged underwater. This is freedom; this is happiness, away from anxiety of everyday life. I love water, I love living on an island where I can always escape through this underwater world.

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A Vodou Dance in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

“They call it ‘Vodou Rock N’ Roots’ music,” my friend Fuz told me as I shimmied into a lightweight, green dress and doused myself with a heavy coating of DEET.

I nodded.

I wasn’t really sure what I was committing to, but a night of Vodou RnR in Port-Au-Prince sounded like something white picket-fenced parents would feverishly warn their children about: a forbidden fruit, and therefore, likely, one hell of a good time!

Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint Louverture Airport with my new-ish boyfriend, an overstuffed camping backpack, an unrelenting itch for independence, and enough DEET to single-handedly eradicate Chikungunya, Haiti’s latest mosquito born illness. I was twenty-six and desperately searching for that holy grail of life experiences that would magically connect the dots of my existence and leave me with a better understanding of who I was and where I was going. With that in mind, and my party dress on, we threw back the dregs of Barbancourt rum in our glasses and set out to see RAM perform their “Vodou music” at the infamous Hotel Oloffson.

Pulling up to the 19th century gothic gingerbread mansion turned hotel, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. The architecture, delicate but weathered, spoke towards a brutal and yet proud history of revolt and rebirth. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, it served as the perfect backdrop for Haitians, NGOs, and us as we mingled and mixed, drank and smoked.

And then, like an electric shock, I heard the horns.

Before we could even figure out where to look, RAM had successfully infiltrated the crowd from multiple locations. There was an overwhelming sense of being one entity: empowered, passionate, and unified. It didn’t surprise when I later discovered that Richard Morse, the lead male vocalist and founder of the band, was a political activist. The way I felt as they enveloped us with their powerful sound and energy, was how I imagined great movements in history began.

The next couple of hours flew by.

My dress clung to my hips and chest as I swayed chaotically to the rhythm. The hotel in Port-Au-Prince was heaving with moving shapes. Heat evaporated off of our bodies and into the atmosphere where it seemed to ricochet off a tangible, full-bodied beat that originated from a chorus of rara horns, petro drums, and the vocal chords of Richard and his wife Lunise.

It was animalistic and rum-soaked and I felt like, in that singular moment, absolutely anything was possible.

The next morning when I woke up in the haze of a cracking hangover, I thought the whole thing might have been a surreal dream, an existential manifestation of my desire to free myself from the constructs of an overly mannered society. As I pondered the possibility, Fuz walked into my room and showed me a circular, purple mark on his chest.

“You bit me last night!” He laughed.

I pulled the sheets over half of my face, mortified, “What!?”

“You actually bit a couple of people,” he clarified.

Sure enough, my boyfriend rolled over and he too donned the impression of my teeth on his bicep. In cringe worthy detail, they described how things escalated from a figuratively “animalistic vibe” into me literally becoming an animal, casually gifting love bites to my fellow dancers.

“Molly-gunya has infected the island!”

Unfortunately, I have yet to live down that joke.

Some time has passed since that sweaty, wild evening in Haiti’s capital city where I went seeking independence and magically found it in the roar of a horn, and the rhythmic cadence of a voudu melody. I’m now thirty years old, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve recently married that once “new-ish boyfriend” of mine. Compared to the vocabulary of my younger self, the word “Independence” is currently more frequently aligned with a zero balance on my credit card or my recent decision to quit my job and become a full time writer. And, I’m ok with that. I wouldn’t change anything.

However, every now and then, I do find myself opening up RAM’s latest album on Spotify. I put on my headphones, scroll down to ‘M’prai Domi Nan Simitye’ and hit play.

The horns roar.

I close my eyes and I drift away to a gingerbread oasis in the bustling capital city of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I’m free.

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The Freedom of a Traveler in Moscow, Russia

In the fall of 2016, I boarded one of the first in a series of three flights that would lead me to St. Petersburg, Russia. Compared to most college seniors, I hadn’t traveled that much; the most I had ever been on my own was living on a college campus in a small town in Minnesota which happened to be 400 miles from my home state. I was incredibly nervous for the duration of these three flights—except for the last one, during which I slept for most of the two hours—and it took a while to get adjusted to living in a foreign country with a host family. However, one cold, snowy night in November, I said goodbye to my host mother, joined the rest of my classmates, and boarded a train to Moscow. We spent a weekend there together and the following Sunday, I watched as everyone went off in different directions for independent travel week. And there I was, left on my own in a hotel in the biggest city in central Europe.

I spent three days in Moscow; I visited Lubyanka Square each day and made a different path around the city that I made sure would lead back to the metro. At the end of my time in Moscow, I took an overnight train to Veliky Novgorod that arrived at 5am to visit some friends and classmates. Had it not been for a very pleasant, middle-aged woman in the Moscow train station, I would not have known when the boarding for my train started. But she, a native Russian, was able to hear and understand the intercom over the noise of the trains and people around us. As we parted, she said, “Go with God.” I smiled, thanked her, and found the platform on my own. At the end of my time in Novogorod, I followed my friend’s directions on which bus to take to the train station and from there, went back to St. Petersburg.

Since then, I’ve traveled more. I’m currently residing in a different part of Russia and only recently, I took the electric train to a nearby town with some friends. Until I studied abroad, I had not really felt this kind of freedom before, the freedom of knowing you are capable of quite a lot, even as a “stranger in a strange land.” Even if I had never taken all of those trains to various cities around Russia last fall, I would still have tasted a new kind of freedom, the kind you acquire having to navigate a city like St. Petersburg on your own—a city of 5 million people, many of whom take the big and beautiful metro system, as I did nearly every morning on my way to classes. It was a new kind of independence I lived out, having to learn where the grocery stores and apothecaries are by keeping a lookout on my walks home, relying on small maps and the directions of Russian policemen, or even just realizing how different the city looked when the first few inches of snow fell and did not melt.

I was a homebody before my plane landed in Russia last fall. Now, I want to travel the world because I find freedom in traveling. I find freedom in being able to do “simple” things in foreign cities that would be so much less fulfilling in my hometown, things such as looking for particular groceries in a foreign language, being able to successfully communicate with a taxi driver, even just buying another couple of tokens for the metro. The night I prepared to leave St. Petersburg, I managed to get my backpack and suitcase to the nearest metro station and as I entered, I put in the last metro token I had with me. The woman guided me towards the special turnstile they have for people in wheelchairs or with large items, like me. Though I fell asleep after my plane took off, I knew when I woke up that I was going to come back as soon as I could. I had found a new freedom: the vibrant, intoxicating freedom of being a solo traveler. My best wishes to you as you travel more!

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Freedom & Independence; Together in India

International travel represents a higher level of achievement and independence. It has always been my dream to leave the comforts of home and embark on a trip across the world. The day my passport arrived was one of those monumental moments of achievement. The freedom that little blue book resembles is indescribable and yet carries prestige to the holder. Long hours of standing in line just to wait some more, a quick and unexpected trip to the county clerk’s office and a hectic battle in traffic back to the passport office were well worth it. After a two day wait and then the ever anticipated delivery of a large white envelope, I was approved and free! Free to leave the stress of work and the ever present rat race of my hometown. Free to travel the world and experience life outside of the United States. I received multiple travel alerts and words of warning from kind strangers along my way. I am sure that the sight of a young American woman traveling alone, glittery Victoria Secret bag in tow, was enough to give concern to sympathetic travelers.

I gladly touted my strong sense of independence and repeatedly assured them of my capability to survive. Besides, I had done my research; weeks of research to be exact, I had taken all of the necessary precautions in making my arrangements. I wasn’t posting on social media to alert stalkers, I placed myself amongst a family of travelers to hide the fact that I was alone. I even had multiple contacts that would meet me and show me around India. Underneath this façade of strength I was secretly relieved for the words of warning, words of encouragement and the kind smiles of those strangers. They knew better than I did, they knew what I would have to face all on my own. Stubbornness and independence have always been my shield, my driving force to go where others do not dare to go.

We are all social creatures, we not only crave social interaction, but are highly dependent upon it. When we travel, we travel with purpose; every trip begins with a plan of where to go and what to do once we get there. Despite the feelings of excitement and anticipation, we shackle ourselves to fear. Luggage, suitcases and travel bags present a feeling of security. If only we could pack the entire house, bring all of our personal belongings with us, then we would be ok, we would be comfortable and secure. Once our bags are packed, we race towards our destination, the façade of freedom and independence. That’s when I ask myself, is it possible to have freedom and independence?

Experiencing India as a solo traveler was a monumental accomplishment and a rewarding experience. My mantra is to learn something new every day; I learned so much about India and about myself. True travel into the depths of the city and off the main roads is the best way to explore and gain an understanding of what freedom means to you.

Let’s first look at the statistics; Delhi, India has been identified as the rape capital of the world. Women are still considered property/slaves, and are not permitted to speak to a man, much less walk around in public alone. My encounters with kind travelers warned me of these things prior to my a