Soul-Searching in Iceland

June 17th, 2017

IcelandTravel Writing Award

An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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

Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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

I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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

How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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

The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason that I fell in love with my home country.
I am born and raised in a third world country. I wasn’t born to travel, I was one of those yuppies today that were made to follow their parents dream and move to the corporate world. I found out that I wasn’t for an 8 to 5 job. When I was into a multinational sales company, my horizon widen for travelling since I was sent to different cities and provinces in the Philippines. I was sent to Zamboanga, Cebu, Bicol and I was already counting where to go next. From then on, I promised myself that I would explore my country first before I try to move or see to another country. So here are the 40 things I learned while exploring Philippines.
1. Love your home country. I am a proud Filipino.
2. Have at least 1 local friend or acquaintance to keep in touch to in every destination. You’ll never know you when might you see them again.
3. There’s a difference between Visayan dialect in the Visayas and in Mindanao.
4. I understand quite a bit the different dialects around the country but I’m having a hard time understanding Bicolano.
5. I started travelling at a very young age, mostly in Laguna-Quezon and Tarlac, my mother and father’s hometown.
6. I’d been to Boracay for the nth time and I still love the place. It’s my heaven.
7. My favourite province is Cebu. Cebu will always be my number 1. Well, there’s so much to see – beaches, waterfalls and heritage sites and most especially the food and the people.
8. My first white sand beach is in Bantayan Island in Cebu. I became a beach bum after seeing the island.
9. Out of the different places I haven’t seen, I’m saving El Nido for a special someone. I refused every invitation to go there even if my itchy feet want to see the place.
10. I’d love to meet hacienderos in Bacolod and the rest of Negros. This is one is funny, but it’s true.
11. Visit a church.
12. My first out of town trip with friends was in The Shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan. There goes my fascination with old churches.
13. There are only few old Spanish churches in Mindanao. The rest are found in Luzon and Visayas.
14. We are rich in history. Don’t forget to visit a heritage site or a museum.
15. Try local food or delicacies of different provinces
16. Must try the different longganisa around the country.
17. Curacha is very delicious.
18. I grew up learning how to make a kiping (rice crispy) for the Pahiyas Festival.
19. Most of the time, I cry when I’m in Baguio. Don’t ask me why.
20. Riding on top of a Jeepney is fun.
21. Try swimming in a river. There are still clean rivers.
22. Try swimming in hot spring, mineral spring even soda spring.
23. Bath at the cascading water of the falls. It’s a good massage for the back.
24. Your first caught fish is a rewarding experience.
25. Riding a horse without a saddle is scary.
26. Reaching the mountain summit is one of the best experienced after a long trek.
27. The harder to reach your destination, the beautiful the place when you get there, you’ll appreciate the place even more.
28. You might end up having tragic experiences but don’t make it an obstruction while travelling.
29. Box jelly fish stings. Boy, it hurts. Be careful most especially in the coast line of Quezon.
30. On summer there’s still rain. On rainy season, sometimes it’s hot. Just pray that you have a good weather during your travel.
31. Train to be a mountain climber. Learn the basics, the do’s and don’ts in climbing.
32. Try transient houses. Locals are good hosts and tour guides.
33. I’m picky when it comes to toilet. But yeah, I’ve tried toilets under the bushes at the back of the house. Well, learn not to breathe for 5 minutes.
34. Try camping. It’s always good to see the stars and the moon at night.
35. Sleep in a hammock near the shore. I love the breeze of the air and the sound of the waves.
36. I had to take antimalarial drug while I was going to Brooke’s Point, Palawan for precautionary measures.
37. I felt guilty swimming with the whale shark.
38. Dolphins are adorable.
39. Respect culture and religion.
40. Follow the golden rule of travelling: TAKE NOTHING BUT PICTURES, LEAVE NOTHING BUT FOOTPRINTS.

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Return from a Leap of Faith in Spain

“Taking a leap of faith” is a phrase that has always applied to me as a traveler and a dancer. Growing up far below the poverty line, traveling was something I’d tell people I wanted to do, but was such an impossible idea that it started to resemble a little girl telling her parents she wants to grow up to be a princess. Dance classes were only possible when money and time-off from work collided. Travel was a murky mystery. Like putting on a Halloween costume, I could be a witch or an angel or a giant hotdog for the night, and then it was over.

There are three personae that I’ve always wanted to attain–writer, traveler, and dancer. These were the Halloween costumes I wanted to don and never take off no matter how many people told me it looked ridiculous to wear them in public. When money stood in the way, as it so often did, those costumes went in storage and the dreams were shelved above reality, out of reach and collecting dust.

Writing? I’m doing that now. Traveling? I’ve succeeded for the most part and even my failures can be construed as successes. Dancing? We’ll get to that. But first, I’m going to teach you some ballet terminology.

Barre – a horizontal bar to rest your hand on while practicing. Through high school, I found blogs of people who took off around the world for uncertain lengths of time, not even knowing the name of their next hostel. I spent the time researching far-too-expensive volunteer abroad programs, all the while breathing the words of travel bloggers and backpackers as if I too were somehow capable of this grand adventure and could sympathize with them. And then I let go of the barre metaphorically–I traveled to Japan on a scholarship to study abroad in college; I ventured to Morocco for a month to visit a friend; and then I choreographed my own path in life, working long hours to afford a four-month backpacking trip to Europe that started in Norway and ended in Spain.

Pas de Bourrée – a multi-step traveling move that dance teachers make you do roughly a million times. I count those three locations as my pas de bourrée of travel: Japan, Morocco, and Europe. Japan was dipping my toe into the water, Morocco was learning to doggy paddle, and Europe was a dive into the deep end. I went from not knowing how to exchange money to going on fifteen-hour bus rides, sleeping in airports and going clubbing with strangers I met on hiking trails.

Jeté – a jump. Travel taught me how to take a leap of faith forward; to go up to the group of people in the hostel and introduce myself, to not despair too much when the turnstile at the train station rejects my ticket and barks at me in a different language, and to be my own number one champion.

And then there’s the adagio – the slow dance. I returned from Spain to a not-so-happy reunion. Friends had left, money troubles abounded, and I ended up without a place to live for the first three months of my return. For someone who grows up with the same income my family had, this kind of poor-stable-poor again cycle is familiar. Stability is fleeting, like in a dance–it’s only a transition to another step.

It was a petit allegro, of sorts – a fast-paced dance to figure out my place. I Couchsurfed and worked in all my free time, going to interviews with my backpack on, and occasionally going a day without food.

But what was all of that travel for if not to prepare me to work and dance my way to a solution? I worked three jobs, got an apartment and somehow still had a great GPA during these months. Traveling taught me to do the fast and slow dances through life, to figure it out and not be afraid. I took a leap of faith and could finally call myself a traveler–and a dancer. One of those jobs was at a dance studio, working the front desk and taking classes when I could. Now I travel, dance and write as much as possible because my dive into the deep end in Europe taught me to hustle, dream and keep my head up. Even when I fall out of a turn and lose that stability, I refuse to kick my dreams to the side.

Because when you fall, you have to make it a part of your dance.  You have to take a leap of faith.

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How Travel Changed Everything; Starting in Italy

My first year of college I didn’t write names of love interests in the margins during long lectures. Instead I wrote names of foreign cities in flowery script and drew castles and maps. When I finally could start dancing to the song of the open road, I was nineteen and wide-eyed, alone for the first time in a foreign land.

Unfamiliarity reminded me that I was alive. Waking up in new places I suddenly had no history, and all interactions were based only on life in that moment. I discovered I could be anyone. This was the beginning, and it changed everything.

Over the next decade I continued my independent travel, living and working on nearly all the continents. That deep settling into a place was nourishing to my heart, and I was filled with so much of every emotion, but mostly wonder. Wonder-filled at our human diversity, our planet of such extremes and such beauty, and at our sameness within the broad spectrum of being human. It also made it easier for me to redefine words that are often given to us by our culture; definitions of success and wealth and living a good life.

I was alone a lot while in Italy. In the small southern town where I lived, my acquaintances were kind and hospitable. Friends cooked me octopus, my first time eating tentacles; it was roasted over an open fire pit, seasoned with the tang of a lemon harvested from the backyard. But, I also met a level of not-belonging, the outsider not speaking the dialect. In those solitary times, I actually found myself to be good company. It was the beginning of a revolution, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Our Western culture wants us to believe that we don’t have value unless we look or live a certain way, and that we need to buy products to make us smarter, prettier, happier. Instead, I got a start on realizing that my worth was innate. I was comfortable being alone, and I liked myself. Indeed, the revolution begins in small places.

Perhaps for an introvert like myself, spending time alone wasn’t a huge stretch. Living in São Paolo, Brazil, I ended up spending time in several large families, and with their friends, who took me to places with lots of people. With practice, I developed a certain ease and friendliness, albeit in broken Portuguese, and I could be more outgoing than I ever had been before. Surrounded by friends who only recently had been strangers, there I was, laughing on a wide beach, tall purple-blue mountains laced around us under a sky of unfamiliar southern stars, eating bobó de camarão and listening to glistening beats of forró and samba. This is slow confidence; I grew, becoming more sure of myself, of my decisions.

More importantly though, travelling introduced me to a myriad of stories and worldviews and perceptions and ideas. It was impossible to keep my Western cultural upbringing as the only story and the most compelling story once I’d witnessed so many more. This concept of the single story is dangerous, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie has pointed out. Even as the internet allows us real-time glimpses into life in other countries, such as videos from Syrians trapped in Aleppo, for anyone who wants to listen, we realize that our story is not the only one. The difference with travel though is that changing the channel or turning off the uncomfortable bits isn’t so easy. When we aren’t able to leave the view, there is the opportunity for our compassion to grow. I think that getting to practice feeling discomfort is rather valuable.

It isn’t easy, being a witness to the big wrongs that exist in the world. There was the day that I met baby Arafat, shrunken and wrinkled like an old man at just three months old, and he died the next day. Rather than just being another statistic of child mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, I discovered the power of being witness, and of honouring that witness. Remembering Arafat, saying his name; it is a small thing, but an important thing. He isn’t forgotten. His life mattered.

I actually think that the biggest place to face fear and grow into the person I was meant to be was while at home. When I was ensconced in my world of familiar and comfort, the easy thing to do was to stay there. Acknowledging the nay-sayers and traveling anyway, is my way of growing more human.

Seeing the commonality of our human experience is one of the greatest gifts of travel. Margaret Wheatley wrote, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” Through travel, I see the stories of others and how the threads of it are somehow like mine. Even when we can’t make sense of the inequalities in the world, I can still connect with a human who needs to eat a meal just like me, and we can eat together. There is magic in travel if we let it happen and it will surely change us in unexpected and delightful ways.

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The Start in France

I never could figure out where it all started. Maybe it was the mission trip I went on as an adolescent to assist in the relief effort in Haiti after the earth quake struck, joining the army, a cruise I took to the Bahamas, fighting in the war in Afghanistan or being stationed in Germany for over two years. I wouldn’t call it a void because it was never completely empty. However like a buckets purpose is to be filled, I’ve always had this drive, an ambition to find myself. After each journey I began to notice that my own internal bucket, my soul, collected small bits and pieces along the way. They didn’t weigh me down or sit just as objects taking up space, they grew like seeds planted in a garden and produced a new crop within myself. My body harvested every crop to provide nourishment for my spirit. Allowing the qualities I currently possess to strengthen and show more clearly.
I experienced great joy, excitement, an eagerness to learn and immerse myself in others cultures and way of life while on each adventure. In each location a submerged treasure chest awaited, held down by an anchor and locked.

For a while I had trouble finding these hidden troves of treasure. It wasn’t until I realized I was the anchor preventing the chest from coming to the surface that I began to change. My links were strong, my weight came from all my preconceived notions my small world I voyaged in had come to teach me. I became more receptive of the uniqueness of each place and my surroundings and started to perceive things differently. My anchor became a balloon and my links a string, allowing me to easily bring the once lost treasure to the surface. Still locked, I needed the key to open it. Unknowingly I had been given it already, it disguised itself in the form of a thought. As long as my mind remained locked to change, so would the chest. Each place the treasures became easier to find holding inside greater rewards. The treasures held within weren’t gold, diamonds or things to hoard and sell for profit. No, each chest contained those seeds, those same seeds that allowed me to grow. Just enough to produce a crop inside of me and extras to spread along my future journeys.

I still had this unfulfilled feeling and I couldn’t grasp why. Until I changed something that made traveling really change my life. When I first set off on my own. Stationed in Germany at the time, I was waiting to get released from work to start my vacation time. Everything I ever do is almost always planned down to the very last detail at work or in my personal time. Not this time, this time something inside of me was just screaming “GO”. With no planning, not even knowing where I was going to sleep. I packed my suitcase, grabbed my camera and set off on the road to France. I had a burning passion to drive along the coast of Normandy to visit every landing site from D-Day, during WWII.

The adrenaline never seemed to stop until I arrived on my first leg of the trip in Paris, France. I spent the next two nights there, speechless and amazed by all the history and everything I was seeing and experiencing. My last night, I sat on the grass of The Champ De Mars, staring for hours at the Eiffel Tower. Losing myself in thought, a million miles away from reality. Its lights filled the night sky for miles and brought on a warm, tranquil feeling.

Au revoir Paris, I whispered to myself as I got into my car to hit the road again. My sights now set on Sword beach. Along the coast and through the country side I traveled to every landing site ending with Utah Beach. Stopping at each to pay my respects to all the men that so bravely fought and died here in France.

After this experience, it became apparent for the rest of my life I would continue to strive to see as much of the world as possible. Since then, I continue to tell myself the world has many untold stories from people waiting to be told. Memories to be created and experiences to be had.

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In Getting Lost, I Was Found in Japan

I was simultaneously excited and terrified as I boarded a Japan Airlines flight bound for Tokyo. It was in between my junior and senior year of college, and I flew half-way around the world by myself to live with strangers, a host family, for eight weeks of study at Seigakuin University, just outside of Tokyo.

My host family met me at the airport and took me back to their house.

The Land of the Rising Sun took on new meaning the next morning as a rooster cock-a-doodle dooed at 5:00 a.m., waking me, despite being exhausted.

A stranger to jet lag, it threw me into fits of crying and hysterics, later that day. My host family didn’t speak much English, and my two years of Japanese language study wasn’t getting me very far. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the computerized toilet; my bed was a tatami mat, and my host sister, Ayako (about my age and who I had incorrectly pegged as my new best friend), was stoic and obvious in the fact that she didn’t really want me to be sharing her space.

I wanted to go home to Indiana. I called my mom, begging her to let me take the next flight home. She told me to get through one week.

So, I gutted it out for a couple more days until my classes started.

Ayako walked me to the university my first day. I walked over concrete sewer grates with koi swimming below, passing small shops, a bakery and uniformed children on their way to school, smiling at me and yelling “Hello!” At the train station, she expertly took out a card and swiped it through the turnstiles, handing one off to me to do the same.

We took the train for about 20 minutes, stopping at a very crowded station, changing platforms, then cramming our way onto another train for another five minutes. We then walked down alleys, across skywalks and through neighborhoods for another 15 minutes before reaching my school. Everything was foreign – the street signs, the cars, even the dog I passed was a breed I’d never seen.

Day two, after breakfast, I waited in the entry way of my house for my host sister and my host mother said, “Ayako no, Lu-chan, go. Go. Dozoo.”

Ummmm… really?!?! Honto ni?!?! Go to school without my host sister?

I found some fake confidence and started out the door, not wanting to disturb Ayako or make trouble with my Okaasan. It was 1993, before the days of cell phones and GPS, but somehow by the power of St. Christopher, the koi fish in the sewers, or some wondrous Japanese navigational god, I found my way to school (this time taking copious notes for future reference).

Another directionally challenged evening, my five classmates and I were hosted by another family for dinner. We were all enjoying ourselves, not realizing the time, and as we left, we discovered that the last trains were departing the stations. I was in an unfamiliar part of Tokyo and got some bad directions. At one point, I noticed that my train was going north instead of south. Panic set in. I imagined being stranded at 1am in a suburb of Tokyo, calling and waking up my host parents, asking my grumpy host father to come find me.

A Friday night, I searched through drunk businessmen, dozing, hiccupping and wreaking of Sake, for a friendlier, sober face. Another divine-type intervention supervened as Japanese flowed out of my mouth as naturally as English, and I asked a nice young woman how to get back home. Crisis averted. I caught the last train back to my town, and avoided disturbing grouchy Otoosan.

In those marked moments, I found my way both literally and figuratively. After those incidents, I confidently traveled all over Tokyo, improving my language with each misspoken word and patient ears from my host mother, even speaking Japanese to the Shiba Inu, the dog I passed every day on my way to school.

I stayed all eight weeks, crying when I left both because I was going to miss my temporary home, but also because I knew I was going home a different person – someone who was more self-assured, and who had let the experiences enrich her soul beyond what she originally imagined.

They say that being uncomfortable brings change and makes you grow, and although that first trip to Japan stretched my limits more than any other trip, I continue to travel for the same reason. It’s why I drag my kids to unfamiliar places and why I like getting lost (even though it drives my husband crazy.)

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An unpredictable journey in Laos

When I embarked for a six months’ solo trip to Asia, I did not know what to expect. I had never gone that far, neither extensively traveled. Doing it alone required faith in my abilities. I still clearly remember my feeling at landing: so this is it. It seemed hard to believe that I actually had made it after such a lengthy wait.

I headed to the road less traveled in Laos, excited for adventures to come. I intended on reaching Lak Sao as a base to explore Kong Lor cave for a day. On an early morning, I patiently waited for my bus to depart from a dusty square. Eyes half closed, I lazily rested in the middle of the morning chaos. Transports arriving, wandering merchants offering food, unpredictable market stalls luring tourists and buzzing motorbikes grew with the warm sun. Finally, it was time to board. I couldn’t help but laugh as soon as I stepped in. I was greeted by someone’s bottom as they made their way to their seat. The alley, as well as the feet space, was occupied by huge bags of cattle feed, forcing all passengers to shuffle on all fours. Amused, I crawled to my designated spot, ready to spend over 5 hours with my knees under my chin. As the bus filled up, I became a curiosity for kids and their parents alike. Not only did I stand out with blonde hair and blue eyes, I was also the only white woman, furthermore traveling on her own.

The mountain itinerary was strikingly scenic. We were approximately halfway when we suddenly came to a stop after a sharp noise. We were hastened out of the bus without ceremony. Confused, I looked around me. There was only dense forest, dropping steeply behind me. The culprit was a large size rock, which severed something of obvious mechanical importance. Panic rose as I could not communicate with anyone, nor understand what was unfolding. After an unsettling and unpredictable wait on the side of the road, another coach passed by. It was promptly waived and I was signaled to climb in. Lightened, I grabbed my backpack and crammed in with everyone else.

Relief was short lived as we disembarked quickly. Needless to argue I had paid my ticket to a set arrival. I was in a small village, which had for transport hub a wooden shack. People stared as I got off, visibly lost, trying to localize myself on the map. I had no clue where I was, how to get where I needed to go and no one spoke English. Fear stricken, I felt on the verge of tears. I decided to not let it overwhelm me, took a deep breath and attempted to converse with a local again. The old man barely understood me, so I tried to get my point across by repeating the town’s name. A lot of discussion ensued with onlookers, and whereas I could tell I was the subject of it, I could not follow a word. I got assigned to a songthaew and apprehensively started an unknown journey.

The ride set on a dirt route along rice paddies and buffaloes. My stress grew as time seemed to stretch endlessly. However, I couldn’t help but marvel at the scenery. Villagers working in the fields, mountains at the horizon, everything was so foreign and beautiful. Laos has this peaceful feel that slows time down. The lush green nature and the relaxed rhythm of life can only soothe you.

Eventually, the driver indicated me to hop off and went. My heart sunk in my chest. I was on the side of a track, with only few houses. This was not the place I requested. I didn’t know where I was, again, to fit in the day’s trend. A young boy greeted me from his door with a hesitant English. Worried, I enquired about my position. The cave is just at the end of the path, he explained, a mere 5 minutes’ walk away.

I couldn’t believe my ears. After hours of unpredictable travel and being lost, I ended up in a completely different area, which turned out to be beneficial for my destination. Still shaken by the day’s events, I walked to the cave, half expecting to have been misled. I arrived at a small crystal clear lake, facing an imposing limestone wall. For a moment, I could not even see the entrance, a tiny dark hole lost in the mountain’s grandeur. The stillness, the intense darkness and the calm of the water made for one of the most vivid and powerful locations I have ever been to. Somehow, through a hectic journey which took me to places I would have never experienced, I learned, I grew, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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The uncompleted puzzle of me in Portugal

Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with the wind blowing my hair in my face, wrapping it around my neck, making it hard to untangle later. Hearing the waves powering their way through the sand, brushing against my feet, cold feet. Feeling the rays of sun on my skin and thinking: “Priceless and unrepeatable.”
Standing on the shore of Espinho beach, Portugal, with two of my best friends sitting not far from me, making it hard to feel completely free. Hearing their laughs, their words, familiar words. Feeling the moment, the elements, my inside, everything fit together in one thought: “GO TRAVEL. ALONE.”
That moment of epiphany was all I needed to give me strength, to finally decide it is time to go. Alone. Even though I was scared, even though I enjoyed travelling with friends, even though the world can be a big and scary place, it felt right, it felt the only logical thing to do. I was on holidays, I was having the best time, I was seeing new amazing places, I was meeting spontaneous people, but it still wasn’t enough…I wanted to do it all again and again and again and again, on my own.
Sitting on a plane a year later, embarking on a whole new adventure, with a one way ticket to Lisbon, Portugal. The plan was to go work in a hostel, for free, for fun, for change, for ever? Arriving in a new city, but known country, the country that I fell in love with, the country that made me fall in love with myself as a traveller. As soon as I landed I felt the warm breeze on my skin, even though it was November. Back home it just started snowing, but Portugal was in Spring. Actually I was in Spring, a fresh start and in love, in full bloom. Lisbon was big, unknown, but somewhat familiar – the Portuguese hospitality could be sensed. Right from the start – it was home, I was home.
Sitting at my regular table, having my usual cup of coffee, with a notebook opened in front of me. Thoughts pouring out of me, experiences make me write a new and special story every day. Arriving in Lisbon was the best decision I could have made, even if it wasn’t completely my decision. Contacted by the Lisbon team, or by fate, I just accepted the offer, an offer you truly can’t refuse. The same Lisbon team that became my away-from-home family and my best friends. Things I’ve told them that I could never tell to people at home, even the closest people to me. All because our bond was Lisbon-tied, it had a deadline, it had a best before date. Knowing we only have a limited period of time available in that space continuum, we cherished every second of it even more.
The three months spent in Lisbon, spent in the hostel made me grow so much I hardly recognised myself. Was it still me? I figured out a lot about my sensibility, about my listening, about my humour, about my feelings, about my friendships, about my working… me, me, me. The truth is, all this was figured out because of others, not me. Through their eyes I could start seeing myself clearly, through the eyes of people who started to know me from scratch, I became a new person, I could change. And I did change, unknowingly, not thinking about my old self I discovered new shades of my personality that were in hiding, waiting to come out, craving to be shared.
The three months of being completely alone in a foreign country, but never feeling lonely, made me discover the best possible version of myself. I am not done exploring, though, because as I’ve learned – things, people, nature – all are endless puzzles, made up from small pieces of different shapes and shades. Fitting them together can be quite hard at times, but you always get by with a little help from others, if not, there is no point in doing the puzzle at all. As it is not you who will be able to see the picture you represent, it is for others to admire and cherish, and for you to be proud of it.

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Choosing Hope: A Migrant’s Crossroad in Hong Kong

Fear settled on my shoulders and defeat pulled at my heart as I descended the crowded escalator in Hong Kong. I remember the moment as if it was yesterday. We’re finished, beaten, I thought as commuters pushed past in their immaculate suits, clutching their pearl teas close. Rushing to work, they had a place where they belonged. Standing in the middle of the overpass, travel weary from ten months on the road, we belonged to nothing other than the roads we had travelled. I caught my reflection in the glass. It was that of a bag lady with an old yellow blanket around her shoulders. I couldn’t recall where I had found it and I couldn’t believe it had come to this. I looked to my fiancé’s eyes, hoping for a resolution to our predicament but all I saw were unshed tears. We were stranded in the middle of a foreign city at Christmas, surrounded by skyscrapers and with nowhere to go. Fear dug her claws in as we held each other tightly and wept.

After a morning of running between our tiny, box hostel and immigration offices across the harbour, we were out of ideas. Denied entry onto our flight to New Zealand, a simple paperwork error had left us unintentionally stranded and without assistance. We were two emigrants a world away from our former home. Our limited budget had carried us through eight countries and eighty-seven shark conservation events that we had organised but now our wallets sagged, empty. I struggled with the crowds as I walked past brightly-coloured medicinal stores on every street corner. Dried shark fins lined the shelves and, in my defeat, it felt a fitting end to our year. The animals we cherished were for sale by the thousands. The repeated offer of drugs on one street corner did little to lift my spirits. It was a world apart from the shiny metropolis of business, cultural wealth and enticing food I had hoped for. I longed for the lush, green pastures of New Zealand.

We had but one decision to make that day. We could fly back to England on our old Round the World ticket, knowing we couldn’t afford to fly to New Zealand again. The emigration dream would be over. Or we could take a risk and pour our remaining savings into two new flights to Auckland, not knowing if customs would grant us entry. An email from our immigration advisor pinged as we caught the hostel wifi signal. The question mark next to our residency visa remained as the Christmas lights sparkled above Hong Kong’s skyline and we waited.

‘What do we do?’ I asked as I kicked my flip flops off and collapsed onto our tiny bed. The dirt of the city marked the sheets as I scuffed my toes on them absent-mindedly.

Do we take the chance to begin the life we worked so hard for during the past year? Or do we fly back to England and give up? Unspoken questions lingered between us as we stared at the walls and listened to the city below, hoping our advisor would contact us again.

I knew the answer then, just as I know it now.

You don’t give up at the crossroad.

You take your fear, mould it into something resembling grit and dig your heels in.

No matter the exhaustion. No matter the sense of isolation in an unfamiliar city of noise, sweat and our copious tears.

You don’t give up. You just travel.

Echoing my thoughts, my fiancé grabbed my hand. He pulled our ageing bags along the narrow hostel corridor and down onto the streets. We’re doing this, his look of determination told me. We raced to the airport with our three-wheeled bag limping along behind us. Its sorry state reminded me of the exhaustion hidden inside us both as hope became our guide.

The airport was rich with the scent of coffee and the buzz of travel. The familiarity soothed me as I breathed deeply and contemplated how far we had come. The sales lady at the ticket desk did all she could but still I nearly choked at the price of two new tickets.

My phone vibrated as our immigration advisor called. I could have wept with relief and shouted in anger for her mistake with our visas. After three hours of discussions we still had no absolute certainty we would be admitted entry to New Zealand. We had but a hope it would be okay.

Nicholas slid our credit card across the desk with a single finger and purchased our tickets. We were doing this.

I watched our money for food and board disappear but I also watched the next chapter begin.

Shaking from exhaustion and fear, we boarded the flight. The crossroad was worth the risk.

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I CAN DO THIS! -my first solo travel in ITALY

I had worked at the same place for 23 years. I had been married for 40 years. Both of those chapters were about to come to an end. My children were grown and living their own lives. I was lucky enough to have some financial resources. At age 65, it was time to reinvent myself – but what did I want to do? I had never been much of an adventurer or a risk taker. I had to think long and hard about my next chapter.

I had done some traveling in the past but not much in recent years. I yearned to do more, so that was my first line of investigation. While casually perusing Internet sites, I came across one for walking tours in countries all across the globe. I became transfixed, enthralled, inspired. I explored more sites, requested catalogs, and sorted out options.

I found  a company that allows you to choose your itinerary by how many miles you think you can reasonably walk in a day: 3-5, 7-10, 10-15…and the itineraries take you through the countryside, not the cities, which appealed to me. I figure that “when I’m old,” I’ll do cities and museums but for now I want to see villages and local industries, craft markets and how people live. I was walking a 3 mile circuit around a local park near home once or twice a week and I thought, OK, I can do this!  I can pump that up a little and aim for 3-5 miles. I enrolled in a recreational walking class at my local junior college; the mileage was about the same but it took me up and down the students’ cross-country circuit, which helped me build stamina and leg strength.

None of my friends were free to travel with me so I took a deep breath and resolved that I CAN DO THIS. I started to plan a trip on my own. I found a  trip in northern Italy that sounded just my speed – walking 3-5 miles a day through beautiful countryside and staying at unique lodgings, with good food and good wine. I decided that, being my first time as a solo traveler, I would pony up the single supplement for my own room.

The trip began in the city of Turin, which looked on paper to be a charming small European city. My trip mates (there would be 3 couples, a mother and daughter-in-law and me) and guide would meet there but head off almost immediately to the countryside, so I decided to arrive a couple of days earlier to overcome jet lag and take a little time on my own to explore. My sister-in-law showed me how to use Google Earth and between that and TripAdvisor, I found what looked like a sweet bed and breakfast just off one of the main streets. I corresponded with the owner by email, got my flight and prepared to take off on my adventure. A friend suggested that I might want to buy a pair of walking sticks – one of the best pieces of advice I ever got. These sticks, good walking shoes from REI, and a light backpack and I was good to go!

If I had to choose a single word to describe my travel experience it would be EMPOWERING.
I learned I could deal with crises – no Internet so no way to let my family know I had arrived; sinking up to my shins in mud during the wettest spring Europe had seen in 3 years and having to be extricated by the guide and another walker – and challenges – learning the grid structure of Turin streets to find the Internet Cafe, discovering and forging connections with new friends, learning to relieve myself behind a tree. I experienced the unexpected wonders and delights of travel – when we stopped in a small church atop a hill in a tiny town and our guide took out a violin from his pack and played a mini-concert for us; when we tasted 8 kinds of honey with a local beekeeper, saw how grain had been milled for the past 200 years, went wine tasting and learned how to make pasta; when we went truffle hunting and were able to shave the truffles over our own pasta at dinner.

That was 4 years ago. I’ve since completed walking tours in Ecuador, the Galapagos and Slovenia, as well as gorilla and chimpanzee treks in Uganda. I’ve been on safari in Botswana and looking for jaguars, macaws and other critters in Brazil. My travel adventures have been exhilarating, and have inspired me with a growing sense of confidence, competence and joy of living that continues to shape and guide my life!

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Phillippines:  There’s no place like home

There’s no other reason how travel has changed my life except for the simple reason