I’ll Always Go Back to Costa Rica

May 13th, 2017

Costa RicaTravel Writing Award

A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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

How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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

Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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

The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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

Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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

How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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

Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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

How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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

Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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

Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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

Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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

Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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

Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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

Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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

Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands, my perspective began to change quickly. After over 24 hours of travelling, our toddler and preschooler were exhausted, hungry and stretched beyond their limits. An Okinawan woman cautiously approached, a stranger who spoke no English, and handed me a wipe and a bottle of water. She had concern for my children written all over her face. She clearly wanted to help. I remember feeling so overwhelmed in that moment. I knew no one in the country, with no car or phone, and I had two small, inconsolable children. This woman’s act of kindness toward a complete stranger gave me a sense of peace and calming. Okinawa was not a place to be feared, I thought to myself; kindness is not bound by geography.

The good will and gentleness of the Okinawans hasn’t stopped from that moment. Their kindheartedness and willingness to help are seemingly unmatched. They tidy their own storefronts, streets and tables at restaurants. It is rare to see litter anywhere. They even carve out special places in society for elderly, disabled and infants, and not just superficially. These populations are cared for deeply in the Ryukyu Islands. Magnetic symbols are placed on the cars of the elderly so that other drivers can identify and assist them on the road. There are nursing rooms for mothers and child-sized bathrooms in many locations throughout Okinawa. The compassion and collectivist mentality of Okinawa inspires me to love all people and find the joy in each day.

I feel we Americans oftentimes miss the joy available in the simplicity of every day life. In the US, bigger is better and more is more, and even then, it’s not enough. More money, more houses, more cars, our wants are seemingly insatiable. When we moved to Okinawa, life became simple again in many ways. We moved from a large house to small apartment. We went from driving a brand new car to a 15 year-old car. Life here is simple. The island is filled with small living spaces and old cars, and as a result there aren’t as many silent materialism competitions or need to keep up with Kardashians. The simplicity embraced by the Okinawan culture has inspired me to bring this ‘danshari’ or ditching our “things” for a more minimalist lifestyle. Okinawans have inspired me to reconnect with what’s important to me and makes me happy, one of which is travelling.

“Isn’t it enough to be stationed abroad; why go, go, go?” my mother asked when I told her about our upcoming adventures to the other Ryukyu Islands, China, Cambodia and Thailand. Being an active duty military family, we already change our address and travel more in a decade than most Americans do in a lifetime. Why explore further? It literally broadens our horizons. The horizons we grew up with were likely filled with homogenous people with similar life views. As we travel, we see there are actually many ways to live life. It forces us to be uncomfortable, and learn to be okay with that discomfort and then gain confidence in our abilities. It gives us the opportunity to meet new people whose short time together will influence our lives forever. Seeing the world shows us glimpses into the struggles and joys of people belonging to different ethnicities, cultures and religions.

With deep Midwest roots, I never traveled growing up, even within the continental United States. My parents have responsibly and dutifully held the same jobs for 30 years and never sought to look beyond their home state. After graduate school, I was inspired to start seeing the world and haven’t stopped since. Travelling has inspired me to let go of small things, to let go of some perceived big things and to genuinely connect with the place I’m in for the short time I’m there.

Okinawa has further inspired me to travel as much as possible. My two and four year olds both use chopsticks. They regularly say please and thank you in Japanese. They talk about different castle ruins from the Ryukyu Kingdom that we’ve seen together. Their horizons now are as vast as mine were at age 25. We owe it to our children to inspire their dreams by showing them the world. We owe them a course in global citizenship.

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The Future Foretold in New Orleans

On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, even though it’s still morning, people are already drinking and there’s live music blasting in some of the bars. The weather has changed drastically. Yesterday’s torrential rain has turned into bright sunshine. For me, this is even more marked, as I had the icy cold of Chicago only forty-eight hours ago. It’s the first time on my circumnavigation of the world (and I am way over half way) that I feel that it’s not winter. It’s become summer in the blink of an eye.
Rue Royale is charming with its art galleries and boutique restaurants. I wander along the Mississippi, past the brewery, to Jackson Square. The side of the square nearest the river is crowded with people watching some kind of street performer, so I cross the road into the gardens. St. Louis Cathedral is flanked either side by the Cabildo and Prebytere Museums. In front is the statue of Andrew Jackson, who the park is named after. Between the gardens and the cathedral, the square has all kinds of painters, caricaturists, palm readers, fortune tellers and street musicians. The sellers do not hassle anyone and it’s easy to pass through.
Yet I’m drawn to one psychic at the edge of the square in New Orleans. She’s old and dark skinned. She has dark teeth with a couple of silver fillings showing. I’m a little afraid of her. I can’t help myself. I ask her what she does. She tells me that she will ask me to cut cards and then she will interpret them. Her fee is $20 but I can pay her what I like. I don’t want to but somehow I find myself sitting down opposite her. Quickly she tells me to pick as many cards from the deck as I wish and to place them face up on the red cloth which covers the rickety table between us. I pick three. She pauses for a moment then takes hold of both my hands. Quietly, she tells me that I have a set of dreams which are written down, in preferential order, and that I am methodically working through them. She continues in a hush and says that my happiness in pursuing these will continue and that there is nothing to stop me from doing anything that I set my mind to.
Ok, so far, so good. I can cope with this. So why do I still feel uneasy with her? She asks if I have any specific questions for her. I explain that soon a journey I’m on will end and that I then have to decide what to do next. This will quite possibly be what I will do for a living. She instructs me to pick some new cards. The second card I pick is ominously the Reaper. She smiles, crookedly. She interprets that as one thing dies, another will take its place. I have to think about letting go before I can take on something new.
She continues that the something new is likely to involve writing, particularly about my recent experiences, but they should contain my opinions and I shouldn’t be afraid of being critical but to always be honest. Finally she adds that the writing may take different forms, maybe either short stories or articles or indeed a book. Yeah, as if! I hand over my $20 and leave.
Behind her, two violinists begin to play. The music is slow and mesmerising and I join the small crowd that forms around them as each one takes turns to hold down the rhythm whilst the other solos. It is beautiful and it is haunting. The small crowd has now turned to a large one. It seems that everyone in the square has stopped what they were doing to watch and listen. As they finish, there is complete silence until the murmuring of the crowd returns gradually as though the performance had never happened.
I am still moved by the psychic’s words but, as I scan the square, it seems she has gone. The table and her sign too. It’s as if she had never existed either.
Now it’s over two years later and I have one book published, another written and a couple of handfuls of travel articles commissioned by various magazines. And of course, I am the winner of the “We Said Go Travel” competition. All thanks to the fortune teller in New Orleans.

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Hitchhiking and Other Leaps of Faith in Albania

I don’t hitchhike, I’m a woman from Seattle. I’m in Albania, and I really want to see “the Blue Eye,” as I’ve been told it can’t be missed. Unlike in Seattle, hitchhiking is a cultural norm due to lack of public transportation, which makes it a much safer practice. “The Blue Eye” is a natural fresh-water spring near the coastal town of Sarande, where I’m staying. The spring is supposed to be gorgeous, and like a giant blue eye opening up to the sky that you can jump straight into. I’ve been told that the bus there runs one way, and the only way to get back is by hitchhiking. While I was uncomfortable with the idea of hitchhiking, I was more uncomfortable with the idea of missing out on a cultural experience because I was travelling solo as a woman.

When I finally reached the Blue Eye, I was met with a beautiful, remote spring shaded by cool canopied trees I climbed up to the small cliff overhang above the spring. While it hadn’t looked very high from the ground, maybe four meters, four meters is a lot when you think about falling. I looked down into the swirling, blue, whirlpool mess of water before me, I took a breath, and I jumped.

The spring immediately plunged me down to a depth that seemed impossible, then, with my ears ready to explode from the pressure, shot me straight back up to the surface. I’m used to swimming in cold water, but there’s cold water, and then there’s the Blue Eye, and the water in the spring was so cold it knocked the air out of me. I broke the surface with my chest heaving, gasping for oxygen, my whole body numb and shaking, but I couldn’t stop laughing with the wild exhilaration.
I walked back to the main road, already sweating with anxiety about hitchhiking. Thumb resolutely in the air, I began to walk. Eventually, a worn down truck pulled up ahead of me. An old man sat in the passenger seat, and a young man leaned through the driver’s window:
“Where are you going?”
“Sirande”
He and the old man talked for a moment in Albanian.
“Get in!” And so I did.

Speeding along the road, I chatted with the younger man. His father, the man in the passenger seat, didn’t speak a word of English, but genially smiled at me whenever our eyes made contact in the review mirror.
“Do you mind if we go a few miles out of our way?” asked the younger man. “My father lives close to here, so I’d like to drop him off first.” I nodded my ascent, which I immediately regretted as we swerved off onto a deserted side road with only one or two houses in sight. “This is it.” I thought, “This is how it ends.”

Out jumped his father, and off we flew again, with puffs of dust and afternoon sun glowing behind us. The ride back to Sirande took about thirty minutes. My driver was born and raised in the region, and had never left. He was finishing school, studying business (“everyone wants to be a business man” he said), and he asked me about the United States, and what it was like to live there, confiding in me that his dream was to leave and visit the United States. With a pang, I thought about how incredibly lucky I was to have both the economic, but also geo-political, mobility to be able to travel as I pleased. To be riding in a car with a stranger in Albania. We drove into Sirande as the sun lit the harbor up in gold, like god had spilt honey over the Adriatic coast. He let me out, not letting me pay him even a few lek for gas, and drove off with a friendly smile and wave, leaving my alone beside a beach in country that most Americans can’t point out on a map.

I didn’t just learn how to hitchhike in Albania, and hitchhiking didn’t change my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson about trust – both of oneself and others. Sometimes we need to remember that our defense mechanisms, our learned fears necessary for survival, no longer fit either us or our situation. Our old habits no longer meet the needs of the challenges we face. Our safety habits are just that – habits- rather than reactions to real threats. Courage is adaptable through calculated risk. A resilient strength lies in vulnerability and trust, and that strength opens doors we cannot open alone. I’m constantly asked: Aren’t you afraid to travel alone, as a woman? But I’ve learned the better question to ask, is aren’t you afraid not to?

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How Has Travel to the Philippines Changed My Life?

At the age of seventeen I took my first international trip. With Teen Missions International, I traveled to the island of Mindanao in the Philippines with the objective of constructing two church buildings over a six-week stay.

The adventure began at Teen Missions’ bootcamp in Florida. After completion, I journeyed with my team by bus from Florida to California, flew to Manila in the Philippines, and then ferried overnight to the island of Mindanao. The voyage was rough. A storm was brewing and the ferry struggled desperately to stay ahead of impending doom. The waves grew throughout the night, tossing the vessel about like a child’s small toy. By sunrise the storm was over. After safely docking, we made our way inland via the back a truck.

The team consisted of thirty teenagers and six adults. This was not a luxury venture, and our accommodations were rustic. We brought our own tents and dug pit toilets. Each day it rained steadily for two hours. Everything remained damp or wet for the duration of the trip. One night a monsoon struck the island. We slept inside the only wooden building in the village. Lying awake, we listened to the wooden shutters slamming back and forth throughout the night, getting up occasionally to peek through the cracks in the walls to watch the palm trees dancing in the night. The howling wind sounded like a dying animal, stealing away any possible sleep.

By morning the storm was over, and the devastation was realized. Village shacks were no longer standing, lean-to housing was non-existent, and people wandered about picking up scrap with which to rebuild. Our thirty-six person team began to help. We worked side by side helping villagers reconstruct their homes. We were there to build churches, but for the time being it was our privilege to help rebuild their lives.

Eventually we completed the two construction projects. The locals were grateful for the new cement-block buildings constructed for them to worship in. However, I believe they were more grateful for our contributions helping them rebuild their lives and town following the storm than they were for the churches themselves.

One evening the entire village set up tables and brought food they had prepared from in their homes. As a teenager, much of the food did not look appetizing. Our leaders explained that these people probably would not eat for the next day or more because they had given us all that they had. We asked the villagers to join us in the meal. We smiled and thanked them, knowing they had given out of their poverty.

So what came out of this teenage travel adventure? Twenty-three years later I founded an international children’s nonprofit called “A Touch of Hope.” The premise was “kids helping kids.” That teenage adventure taught me how much God can use children and teens to change the world – not only in our efforts to build a building but also in our willingness to help out when we saw a need. This is what touched my life and the lives of the villagers and me on that trip. Kids need to know they can make a difference in the world. They need to learn to reach out and help others when they see a need. This world is a difficult place for many, and those of us that have an ability to help others should do so. What better way to build self-esteem in children than to empower them.

I supervised A Touch of Hope for seven years. Hundreds of children helped raise funds for food and education projects. Many children traveled with me to deliver supplies to the children in third-world countries.

A Touch of Hope’s final project was to raise enough funds to provide the materials and supervising professionals necessary to construct a school building in Zambia, Africa. Two hundred and fifty villagers came out to help build the school once construction began. I watched women carry baskets of water, rocks, and sand up from the river to use for the building process. I spoke to the people about how children and adults helped raise funds for the project.

Today 350 students fill the school. The government in Zambia provided additional teachers and materials, and another organization dug a fresh-water well for the people. Two years later, a medical group established a clinic in the village center.
So how has my life been changed by travel? Traveling is an opportunity for me to meet, inspire, and help people. It is about encouraging others to reach out to those in need and give their travel experiences some real purpose and meaning. My travel experiences are fun and exciting, and they often change the lives of others in the process.

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Lessons on Fear Atop Kilimanjaro in Tanzania

A few years back, I made bold attempt to summit Kilimanjaro via the shortest route – Marangu. By shortest, I mean two and a half days to go up the summit. Sounds intense? It’s more than intense. I almost died from the onset of symptoms of pulmonary edema. By the time I hit the last hut, Kibo, on the night I was scheduled to summit, I barely could lift a fork to feed myself. To be frank, that was one of the scariest nights of my life. A German doctor who happened to be at the hut looked at me and said rather bluntly, “You know you’re not making it right? You’d die if you continue on. Well, that is if you can even walk.”

She was right. I couldn’t walk anymore. My lungs were already filled with fluids and my breathing was significantly limited. As the night progressed, I started coughing and fever set in. The minimal amount of oxygen left me devoid of any ability to even fully comprehend my surroundings. Unbeknownst to her, I cried that night in silence. My younger self then was consumed with a sense of “failure” – one that I dreaded on the trek. After all, I came to Kilimanjaro to conquer the peak. Being only 6-8 hours away from the goal was heart-wrenching. And yet, I knew I had no choice but to quietly lay on that bunk bed while struggling to keep myself awake. Minutes before midnight, I could hear the noises coming from the adrenaline-fueled hikers that were hastily preparing their gear for the ultimate hike up the summit. As they left the room, I felt a sense of disappointment at myself. I could barely stand the thought that I allowed the journey to lead me to this – a distraught, debilitated and hardly functioning version of myself – fully surrendering to the defeat. I recalled laying in silence for a long time while fearing that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them up again. Never. In other words, it dawned on me one fearful notion: I might die tonight.

I thought about my family and friends who didn’t have a clue of the predicament that I was in. Experiencing fear mixed with despair wasn’t something I planned on. At that point, my only goal was to survive. I preoccupied my mind with thoughts, no matter how random they were just to avoid the allure of sleep. I reflected on how events unfolded leading up to that point. Perhaps I became too overly confident as a hiker in light of the fact that I successfully trekked up similar high passes in Nepal only months prior.

As daylight came the next morning, I was immediately carried down by the locals while lying on a homemade stretcher. The process of transporting me to the next hut below was swift and within minutes upon arrival at the hut, the symptoms of altitude sickness dissipated. I survived physically. But then I wondered, “Would I survive the feeling of failure?”

Eight years went by and the experience continued to haunt me. I reflected on the sense of defeat while the passage of time allowed me to grow as a person. That process of growth afforded me the chance to see the incident from a more mature version of myself. Over time, I found a way to release my frustration and fears that caused me to question myself as a hiker. I was scared that if I ever make a second attempt to reach the mighty peak of Kilimanjaro that there’s a chance I may have to face the same sense of failure yet again.

I didn’t ‘realize until then that traveling not only affords you the joy of exploring but also the pain that can potentially come with it. In my case, I became fearful of yet subjecting myself to such kind of endeavor. On the other hand, traveling also taught me to face my fears. And so, years went by. Life moved on. Somehow, I managed to hike and trek other parts of the world. But, still, I continued to debate in my head the ultimate question – will I ever make a second attempt at Kilimanjaro?

Since the fiasco, I’ve been sheltering my heart and mind from the lingering frustrations of the experience. Eventually, this constant denial left me feeling weary of this baseless fear and my effort to shield myself from it, so much so that one day I decided, “what the hell, it’s time to go back to conquer this fear once and for all.” Now, more than ever, I’m genuinely looking forward to the moment I set foot on Kilimanjaro’s trails again armed with only one thing on my side – my fearlessness.

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How Florence, Italy has changed my life:

My name is Clara, I’m 21 years old and I live in Barcelona, Spain. For my 8 year birthday my aunt gave me a present that changed my life: an atlas. Since that moment all I always wanted to do was to see all of the places that my eyes were seeing in that map. This past semester I was able to go to Italy and live in Florence for six months, and it changed my life.

During these six months my life improved, being able to live abroad for the first time it is always a little scary, but everybody in Italy welcomed me with open arms. Once you cross the language barrier one can feel that even if two strangers are completely different they are exactly the same.
I feel that being able to embrace a different culture in all of its forms is a great way to learn and empathise. For me travelling has brought in me a new sense of empathy towards others, it has also provided me with more patience and understanding to different views than mine.

Being away from your comfort zone isn’t always easy but I would definitely say that while travelling I gained a lot of self-confidence and I overstepped situations that are not always easy. I feel that my generation has an advantage towards others, and it is that is really easy to travel. We have many opportunities to experiment this world and discover what this planet has to offer.
In my case I discovered Florence, the heart of the Tuscany and, let me say, the heart of Italy. Florence is an incredible city, full of secrets and worth of Dan Brown novels. Its past is present everywhere and if you are vivid and curious you will never stop discovering amazing things.

For example, I discovered that Florence, as many other big cities crossed by a river, had a flood 50 years ago. They called it the ‘alluvione’. In 1966 the Arno river caused a big flood after three straight days of rain. The flood killed 35 people and destroyed many paintings from the renaissance and numerous historical operas, not just of art. This disaster is remembered by the so called “angeli del fango / the angels of the mud” a number of people from around the world that came to rescue the operas and to help the people, including people from the US army that helped to rescue.

Although it is a big tragedy I also think that this flood is a great example of humanity and this is exactly what travel has taught me, everybody working together for a greater cause. And in essence if you walk around Florence you can feel that, from smallest acts to bigger ones, once you open yourself Italians will respond immediately with the biggest of smiles and the biggest of personalities, from the women in the bakery to the owner of the little shop to the landlord of your house, everyone is willing to share if you are ready to listen.

I would like to say that I think what helped me the most discovering the essence of Italians was sharing a flat with two of them and I encourage people travelling to do the same because it is the most honest way to learn from a country. My flatmates showed me their traditions and culture.

Since I was a child I was programmed to memorize things: maths, language, music, philosophy, etc. But it was only when I started to travel and discovering the world that I started learning and actually living. Once I saw that we are different but we are the same I felt a new sense of humanity and love that keeps me travelling and pushing to discover more. As Italians say “piano piano si va lontano e si va sano”, little by little you can go far and safe.

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Searching For The Meaning of Life in China

I have travelled far and wide, seeking out the most barren places, searching for answer to that fundamental question: why are we here? And do you know what I’ve found? I did not find God, or myself, or some magical wish granting fish; do you want to know what’s really there?

Only what you take with you.

I sit here staring out over a 500ft drop down to a verdant jungle. This is one of the hundred secret places of Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, China. A towering sandstone obelisk sticks out of the ground in front of me, its base thinner than its top.

I have a little dream, and in it, an ever changing figure traipses an endless plain of white. Eventually the figure takes off and becomes a white bird flying towards me. I wake and feel fear strike me once again on the precipice, but I quickly overcome it and smile deeply.

“I am here” I whisper “and I am not afraid.”
“I see you.” It says back.

Was this some kind of vision? A metaphor for my own life? A message from God? No. It was just a dream, and this is just a memory.

I used to think I travelled the world looking for a place to call home. Then I met someone I called the love of my life and thought that I had instead been looking for someone to share the whole world with. Now I see that both of those thoughts, though true to me at the time, were merely oversimplifications of a common truth.

And what is this truth you ask? Well, it is as different for me as it is for you. Some people follow their favourite sports team religiously, some follow religion itself, some pour all their energy into their career, or family, or a noble cause such as justice or politics.

In truth, though people may appear to want very different things, they are all seeking the same thing:
Absolute happiness.

You can call this fulfilment, gratification, whatever you like, the feeling is indescribably unique and yet universal to everyone.
I have none of these things. Does this make me lost? While I may not have anything in particular to focus my attention on: no faith, no family, no state; am I destitute? On the contrary, I experience happiness almost constantly and I know that because of my personality, I will always continue to do so. I move from occupation to occupation, from place to place, I explore the world and experience great things, things others only dream of. This is the life I have cultivated for myself, and as I sit here staring over this indescribable scene, I am beginning to realise this, or rather remember it.

You might call this a life of self-indulgence, and you may be right – by your standards – but what’s important to you is very different from what’s important to me. I don’t care where I sleep, what tomorrow brings, or what troubles yesterday served, as long as I have this happiness, this freedom. And I don’t judge others, or consider their lives less meaningful, or less fulfilling than my own. We barely understand ourselves, let alone those so different from us.

But all of this is essentially irrelevant. I am happy in this life because I have the knowledge in my heart that when I die, I will become dust and nothing more. Even if I leave behind a family, a legacy; within two generation my actions, no matter how great, will be forgotten. Do you know the name of your great-grandmother? What did she do? I don’t.

This rock that I sit on was once a billion grains of sand, which were once a part of a billion other rocks, and in another billion years they will be sand once more. We have been on this earth for such a short amount of time that we forget that the earth has barely noticed us at all.

We are but a breeze in eternity.

What does it matter what we do in our short lives? Who will it matter to a hundred, a thousand years from now?

We will be but dust and air.

If I were to pick up a stone and throw it from this cliff, would you miss it? So then, if I throw myself instead, will the world miss me? I will simply become another part of it.

Like this stone.

I twist it in my fingers and then casually toss it over the edge.

Will I be more beautiful then?

Will I be more free?

It is six seconds before it hits the ground and in the time it takes the echo to reach me, I have overcome my fear of death.

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A New Life begins in Canada

This story starts with a hospital bed. A cold and lonely night. A lost soul without direction. Asleep at the wheel, likely dreaming of a better life, one he could hardly have imagined. He screamed. Flailed. Desperately waved for help. The cars barely slowed as they rolled by. It was July 1st, 2006, the first day of the rest of my new life.

I grew up in a small town in Northern Canada, in the great expanse of sameness that is the Canadian prairies. Identical wheat towns stretch in every direction for over a thousand miles. The same signs, same brands, same food. Big trucks, oil money, and blue-collar hockey loving patriots. It’s like a frozen version of Texas.

Love first arrived in the form of an atlas. I compared the vibrant colors to the cold, grayish winter haze, the rich, festive cultures, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. It wasn’t long before I memorized all the names within those glossy pages. I could almost hear the chime of the prayer bells echoing through the crisp Himalayan dawn. I counted the days until I was grown enough to join the open road, assuming that it would greet me as if I had always belonged.

I dreamed. I Wished. I waited.

My nineteenth birthday was spent in a Red Robins in a Vancouver, twentieth working on an oil rig close to my home town, twenty-first was similar to the last. Nothing changed, time just kept pressing forward. I was stuck in a cycle, rolling over and over, drowning in the wash, occasionally peering out through the glass door of the machine at the world beyond, as if it was another universe entirely. The same rhythms, the same habits, the same people, the same downward, uncontrollable spiral.  Nothing new.

But then one day it happened.

The best day of my life was the day I woke up on that hospital bed. “You dozed off” she said, “You’re lucky to be alive!” The nurse stares at me with her comforting, sulky eyes. I remember wondering how many many hard nights they had seen. Deep lines of doubt and exhaustion have had their way with her young face. This was a new life, surely, and she was the first new person in it.

I bounced back fast. The wind pushed hard at my back. All those old attachments and excuses were gone. A tide began to rage inside of me. A vision started to form. I felt powerful. I felt exuberant. My mind became impregnated with the most powerful thing: a dream!

I dreamed of Africa. I dreamed of walking the dry savanna with all the strange and wonderful creatures. I dreamed of the Karakoram, the dark and brooding mountains where I was the strangest thing and the people invited me in for apricot cake and sweet chai tea. I dreamed of the towers of Ha Long Bay, hopelessly shrouded in mists. I dreamed of Istanbul where you can stand in Europe and stare across the Bosphorus towards Asia while pondering countless realities–Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottomans.

Today I live in Catalunya. People wave blue, red and yellow flags with white stars as they cry for independence. We eat toast with oil and tomato in the morning. They say “merci” instead of “gracias”, and “parle” instead of “hablo”. The people love to walk, and the cities are made for walking. They are not “Spanish” they say, but “Catalan”. It makes me wonder, now, what am I?

I miss my home. The sound of country music coming from the kitchen radio, dinner will be ready soon. The dogs are on the back porch barking at butterflies. The summer sun goes down at eleven, and comes up again at four. I miss how it races across the prairies, with nothing in its way, save a few rickety wooden grain towers that are slowly turning pink. I miss the “big sky” as people like to say, and the blazing colors of autumn, dancing like wildfire in the wind. Most of all, I miss my mother, her incredible wisdom and guidance.

To me, these things are exotic now. I compare the old, faded family photographs, to my seemingly commonplace surroundings. A small desk where I do my writing, pushed against the brick wall, a doormat underneath that says “welcome” keeps my feet warmer than the bare hardwood. A coffee mug that I stole from a friends house in Berlin stains all my pages with rings darker than the ones under my eyes. The faces of my family comfort me, I imagine them saying “it’s OK, we understand”.

Travel did change my life. The road never greeted me as I thought it would, but slowly over time, I became one of its own, a person shaped by its reality. Never certain, always searching.

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How travel changed my life in Italy

Looking at my laptop, while my equally shocked co-workers stared at me, my eyes let out a few tears. I felt disappointed and upset. These people were underestimating my effort and all the hard work of these years. My ego was disillusioned and hurt, even though I already knew I would be part of the laid-off group. Part of an inevitable outcome.
However, my heart felt completely different. It was relieved, but I was so overwhelmed by emotions that I couldn’t understand it. By then, I was tired, disinterested and frustrated with my job, but I didn’t have the courage to resign before. After all, that’s what happens when we don’t make the right decision; life makes it for us. Fear holds us back from taking different paths and listening to our inner voice, but the truth is that fear is always there. We just need to be brave and take a small step ahead. The rewards will come without realizing.
For the first time, I would follow my heart. No more jobs, no more eight to six schedules. I was going to travel and invest the money I had saved for years on my passion; traveling, exploring new places, interacting with new cultures, connecting with the energy of lovely cities and landscapes, feeling the happiness that only traveling gives me, and filling my soul with learning.
I experienced the same curiosity which drives me every time I embark on a new journey. My call was to travel, and for some unknown reason, to start writing. I took a course on travel writing and began my expedition. I chose Europe, Chile, Australia and New Zealand as the destinations that would welcome me for five months.
That’s how I changed computers for shovels and wheelbarrows, and co-workers for beautiful rescued horses in Tuscany, helping as a volunteer for a month. At the end of these weeks, my hands were sore and Ola, a loving mare, had broken my toe. However, my heart was full of the gratitude and love that these animals gave me. Feeling excited for the trips to come, the journey continued.
I listened to an incredibly charismatic Pope at a mass in Rome. I was transported to medieval times through the enthusiasm and solemnity of one of the oldest traditions in Sienna, the Palio. I trekked the hills that join the picturesque and colorful fishing villages of Cinque Terre, bordering the stunning coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The Tuscan skies dyed with a mix of lavender, coral and orange rays, and the vast reddish sun which was gently lost on the horizon, blinded my eyes and gave my memory the best collection of sunsets. I drove through the green hills full of cone-shaped cypress trees, and the vineyards that led me to the charming medieval towns of Tuscany. I navigated the second largest river in Europe, the Danube, skirting the eclectic architecture of Buda and Pest. I walked over the romantic Ponte Vecchio for the third time in one of my favorite cities, and I returned to the capital that I love the most and with which I am most grateful, my beautiful London.
I saw one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen at Petrohue Falls, walked the Osorno Volcano and was struck by the peace of nature at Cruce de Lagos in Chile. I snorkeled at the world’s largest coral reef in Australia. I felt as euphoric as a five-year-old kid at Christmas when I saw humpback whales breaching in the beautiful beaches of Australia, curious dolphins near our boat in the spectacular Fiordland in New Zealand, the first seal walking by the beach, and also when I witnessed how penguins went back home in the dark.
These were incredible experiences, but even better was my growth and evolution throughout the journey. I met amazing and inspiring people along the way and learned a lot about myself. My new passions and life purposes were unveiled. I understood that our heart always tells the truth, and when we are so brave to follow it, we change, transforming life around us as well. Limits are only fears in disguise. All we have to do is make decisions, overcoming fear and taking action to follow our dreams as we listen to the signals around us.
Looking at my laptop, with a smile on my face and inner confidence, full of projects, new ideas, and creating writing pieces, I begin my new life. Planning my new trip and day-dreaming, I realize that traveling is more than exploring. It is a door which opens to enrich our souls. Don’t postpone your inner calling, just live now!

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

Kindness Is Not Bound By Geography in Okinawa, Japan

“Are you sitting down?” my husband asked me. “I am; just tell me,” I replied, never one to prolong the inevitable. “Our orders were just changed to Okinawa,” he said. When our active duty military family received orders to live in Okinawa, Japan, I cried. More accurately, I sobbed. I had many fears of moving abroad. Navigating without Japanese language skills and driving on the left side of the road topped my list.

The moment we landed in Okinawa, the largest islan