A Chance Worth Taking in Alaska

April 11th, 2017

Travel Writing AwardUnited States

Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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

Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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

How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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

A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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

Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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

The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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

The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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

Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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

Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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

The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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

Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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

The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see the different layers of the rock within the sides of the cliff. There were some dark lines covered with brown dusty layers. It reminded me of the crust of the earth the science teacher shows you in 7th grade. There were layers upon layers of different sedimentary rock that took thousands of years to solidify into cliffs. The top is adorned with grass and splotches of dirt. Nothing divides the cliffs from the ocean. The grass, surely due to the recent rain, was as bright as spring. There is no path to a beach that you can walk down to. The waves hit the pointy black rocks at the bottom, where many have met their end. Even though these cliffs are not the tallest in Ireland, they are the steepest.
I continued on the trail for ten more minutes, getting as far as I could from the parking lot. By the time I had stopped, I could no longer see cement. I was about six feet from the edge, as far as I would go. The dark blue of the ocean reflected off the clouds. It looked like I was about to get soaked at any moment, but not a drop of water came down.
My heart was racing. I was experiencing this only with strangers passing by. I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt in that moment. I had to have a conversation with myself. I knew that although I was alone in that moment, I didn’t feel lonely. I understood the difference between solitude and loneliness. I didn’t need the security of my brother or friend standing right beside me. I finally showed myself, and the unknowing tourists that passed me by, that I could do this alone.
I stayed in one spot, as others took selfies, pictures of the view and asked me to take pictures of them. Waking up before the sun was worth it, and the view was better than in Princess Diaries, the first time I had seen the cliffs when I was 12-year-old kid. The cliffs were majestic, menacing even. I looked toward the west, where all I could see was the ocean meet the sky. I held back tears. Another thing off my things-to-do-before-I-die list, but my first experience as a solo traveler.
Some hours later, as I sat in a booth at a pub somewhere in Northern Ireland, I was able to get Wi-Fi and call my father.
“You see,” he said, “I knew you could do it by yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, “Next time I visit I’ll be brave enough to rent a car and drive on the left side of the road.”

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Gazing Beyond The Surface In Exciting Utila Honduras

My first impression of Utila wasn’t great. The guidebook had led me to expect something more, well, glamorous, than what I encountered stepping off the ferry that first day. A single paved road running through town, only a mile long. Ramshackle wooden buildings with peeling paint, either sinking into swamp, or straddling weathered wooden docks on the harbor. The tiny beach was dusty and partially eroding. And the heat, oh lord. It was September, the hottest month, when the trade winds are silent and it regularly reaches above 30°C, with almost 100% humidity. Even sitting still is sweat-inducing.

With nothing to do the afternoon I arrived, I walked the fifteen sweltering minutes down to the public beach. I waded into the shallow water to cool off, but it was like walking into a giant bathtub. Three young local kids ambushed me in the water; they had clearly been waiting for an unsuspecting tourist to entertain them. They were bold and friendly, with brown skin and sun-dyed hair. A nearby grass-roofed shack played reggae tunes. Families lounged on the sand. A few hours on the island, and I was already starting to relax.

Utila was the second stop on my backpacking trip, my first foray abroad alone. I was enjoying the experience, but there was still that underlying anxiousness to everything, a lingering relic of the life I had left behind in New York. I was doing something most of my friends thought was crazy, and I guess I felt a little bit crazy for doing it. Leaving everything, disappearing off the common map (ask most people if they know where Honduras is, they probably don’t). I was three years into my career, had a “real” job, and real salary. I loved the people around me, but I was suffocating in the city. So I did what any crazy person would do, and ran away.

But not without plans, I’m uncomfortable with the nebulous unknown. After this trip, the plan was to go back to school to study marine biology, a life-long dream. Learning to scuba dive in Utila was only a small part of that plan.

Most people don’t come to Honduras, what with the murderous reputation and all. But everyone who does come to Utila, comes for the same thing— diving. It’s cheap, the water’s warm, and there are whale sharks. I don’t even remember too much about my first dive, all I know is that below the surface, the ocean took hold of my soul. Underwater, all doubt washed away.

A few weeks into my stay, and my instructor was handing me a Divemaster book to study. I was totally hooked, but it wasn’t just the diving, it was the island itself that ensnared me.

Utila is different. A mix of Caribbean and Latin, it’s a wild place, with pirate ancestry and a reggaeton heartbeat. Untamable mangroves cover most of the land, living reef surrounds it, and most days the mountainous mainland is barely visible. The town might look a bit dingy, but that becomes part of the charm, and the people here are proud of their little island.

Utila is welcoming and enveloping. Inclusive of the best people, exclusive of the universe. It can be a cage, and a place of true freedom. It is a transformative place. It digs its roots deep into the hearts of all who know it.

I arrived in Utila unsure of myself, of my place in the world, thinking I knew, but not understanding much of anything. I didn’t expect to choose to leave my entire world behind and never look back. I split my life in two, neatly down the dividing line of earth and sea, and chose the sea. I fell in love with the island, its people; with the ocean and the serenity of diving. I learned to teach, to lead, to speak, and understand. I learned to stand, and to fly. Beneath the surface I soar. I am the ocean. I am the most me.

I let go of my dream of studying marine biology. I let go of a lot of things that mattered— money, stability, a “real” job, the “real” world. I missed flights and family Christmases and my best friend’s wedding. I learned to accept uncertainty. It was hard at times, but my life now is more sweet for the bitterness of my sacrifices. I get to live in the ocean everyday, instead of just reading about it in a classroom. I get to change people’s lives for the better, just as my dive instructor changed mine, when he led me underwater for the first time. The magic that exists in this place is real, and I get to live it.

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Gratitude for Perspective in Morocco

Gratitude is a virtue I’ve been working to include in my life. Gratitude for family, safety, love, financial stability, and a never ending list of items that we cherish in this country. Travel has given me many things, but most of all, it has provided me with a lens of perspective for the experiences that have brought me closer to understanding how different life is for most people in this world.

The first time I traveled to Morocco, it hit me like a rush of warm and inviting wind (much like that of the Sahara desert). I had never visited a country whose standard of living was so different from my own, or a Muslim nation for that matter. At the age of 11, I saw the planes collide with the twin towers. I also saw the difficulty that comes with battling an ideology that has so much ambiguity. Fear had caused me to create my own prejudices. Prejudices that I would have never in million years admit to, but when you see something like 9/11 at such a young age, it causes a lot of confusion and even hate for cultures and religions that you simply don’t understand. Fear became hate and hate became prejudice, which I believe happens to us all too often. It wasn’t an outward prejudice. It was one that looked at women in Hijabs with uncertainty and a certain kind of uneasiness.

At the age of 21, fresh out of college, I arrived at the Casablanca airport, exhausted from three legs of air travel and completely out of my element. As I stood in the customs line, I noted the wide variety of cultures that surrounded me. In that moment, I was frightened and to be frank, a bit ashamed for feeling so afraid.

Later that evening, I met up with my group and my cousin Shelley to photograph the Hassan Mosque II at sunset. No longer alone, the others calmed my nerves and as we wandered and dispersed around the monumental, religious edifice, As I perused the beautiful and colorful stone annexes surrounding the Mosque, I saw mothers playing with children. I saw families taking their evening stroll along the waterfront beside the mosque. I saw children chasing each other and dancing as they giggled with joy. I heard the enchanting and beautiful call to prayer emanate from the mosque. I watched as women exchanged laughter and gossip. I saw love. I saw human beings. All of that uncertainty and fear seemed to melt away completely, and I could no longer view everything as black and white or good and bad.

This experience of traveling to a wonderful, vibrant country has taught me that issues like Syrian refugees in the US are not so cut and dry. We cannot look at an entire country through one skewed lens and expect that we know what the answer is. Unfortunately, there is radicalism that clouds our view of such a large population of the world. All we can do is strive to understand the issues at hand and the people that are wrapped up in a crisis that is not just our own. I don’t want to get political here because it’s not my place. My point is: it’s just not that simple.

On an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show on CNN, he said, “I wish everyone in America could have a passport”. I couldn’t agree more. It sure has changed my life. I am so thankful for the growth in perspective that travel has given me, and I plan to continue that growth with gratitude and an open mind.

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How a trip to Jordan easily convinced me to change jobs

In 2012, I left my job as a database consultant for a large software company, and started a “desk job” back in the IT department. I ended up miserable in a job I hated, and was spending too much time in my car commuting.

One day, I saw a tweet about a Photo Tour to Jordan that had a focus on giving back – in this case helping a Jordanian women’s cooperative by photographing their home-made arts and crafts. I have always loved photography and crafting, and to be able to work with women on arts and crafts – it was like it was designed for me. But I had never travelled to the Mideast. Would it be safe? As a white, overweight, 52-year-old “not as young as I wish I was” person, could I do a trip like this by myself and have fun? Would anyone like me? Could I physically handle this effort?

After talking to the trip coordinator and my husband, I decided to just do it. This was the crazy escape I needed while I waited for an opportunity to fix my job issues. I even paid extra to have a room to myself rather than take my chances with a stranger. In my mind, I was going on this trip alone, and I was just going to ride around with people in a bus and take pictures of things when we stopped. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Traveling to an Arabic country was scary – I didn’t know the language and couldn’t even fake it. The letters and numbers were completely foreign to me, and I wasn’t sure how an American would be received. But I decided to just keep a low profile, keep to myself, and told myself that everything was going to be okay.

What happened over the next 12 days changed my life in so many ways. This tour group had people from all over the world, about half from outside of the United States. The only thing we had in common was photography, but we found ways to bond over all kinds of things. I think what surprised me the most was how much we laughed – at stories, at each other, at silly things that happened.

We spent several days at the women’s cooperative with these women who were considered “too old for marriage” and were learning crafting as a way to support their families. We spent another few nights in an eco-lodge, and a couple of nights in Bedouin tents “off the grid” out in the Wadi Rum desert! We rode camels, and rode in the back of pickup trucks to see amazing sunsets. We swam in the Dead Sea, and saw the amazing sights at Petra. Oh, and we took a lot of great pictures too!

There is one moment on this trip that stands out for me as “life changing”. I am not afraid of heights, but I do have a big fear of falling from heights because I’m kind of clumsy. Somehow I got talked into climbing to the top of the monuments at Petra. This terrified me – but I found strength in my new friends, who patiently waited for me to catch my breath, and encouraged me to not give up, which I threatened to do every time we turned a corner. With their help and support, I made it to the top, which is probably one of the scariest things I’ve done in a very long time.

And that’s when I realized I needed to change my life, and stop being afraid. Here I was, with fifteen total strangers, in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, and I felt more support than I did any day at work.

To make a long story short, I returned home, and focused on finding a different job. It took me about two months, but I left the company I was with and took a big chance working for a smaller company that better met my life goals. I am still friends with all of my Jordan trip mates. My trip taught me that if I have the right people supporting me, I can take risks and there will be people to help me succeed. My new company has given me that kind of support.

That trip also taught me to be less afraid of travel and adventure. Since that first trip, I have been to Italy, Netherlands, Iceland, Denmark, Thailand, Cambodia, Dubai and Bahrain, and I’m planning a trip to Uganda. My travels have opened my eyes about how small our world really is, and showed me that we have more in common that we realize. Everywhere is on my bucket list, and you are never too old to start traveling!

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A Family Adventure from Vietnam to Malaysia

We were a typical urban family, my husband, our 21-month-old daughter, and I. Routine ruled. From the moment the song (pitifully trying to disguise the fact that it was an alarm) initiated the feeling of dread each weekday morning, to the moment we fell into bed exhausted, and uninspired, we appreciated the privilege of our London life, but rued the monotony. And weekends weren’t much better. As soon as the toddler alarm sounded it was going through the motions – making meals, tidying up, forcing ourselves out of the house to shop or entertain, interspersed with some lazing in front of the TV.

On the rare mornings we woke before our tot, we’d lie in bed hashing out pipe dreams about going in search of a life less ordinary. Travelling to live; not working to holiday. A crazy idea that somewhat lost its romance once you considered it more fully – having to quit jobs; pack up a stable family life; risk not being about to find healthy food staples for a dubious toddler palette; fit all we might need for this precious child into suitcases; separate ourselves from family and friends; and give up the security of our home.

But one day the thoughts had gone too far. The fear of looking back on life, bitter with regret from not having attempted to Live The Dream, was greater than the fear of giving up the lives we knew. So we ground our way through the stress and sacrifices that come with leaving a well established life and home and, with bulging bags, became transient. Seven months on, we haven’t turned on the TV. We consistently wake earlier than any alarm previously set. And we slip into bed exhausted, but exhilarated from our adventure.

Our little tot has become more flexible than particular, and cheerfully takes any changes along the path we’ve set our family on in her stride. She adores her armbands and tuk tuks, gets excited by monsoon storms, gleefully points out a full moon, jungle, Buddha, mosque, or Lucky Cat, and her vocabulary now includes words like “frangipani”, “tokay gecko” and “thank you” in 5 different languages. Her favourite sunset is one that turns the sky pink, be it into a glassy turquoise sea from a Thai island or beyond the Petronas Twin Towers. She ooohed along with us as we gawked at the sun rising over Angkor Wat. And she gazes out for almost as long as we do across the electric green rice paddies in Bali. We all jumped up and down together on the bed in our luxury cabin, as the Dragon Legend sailed away to Halong Bay. And we regularly re-live all these moments with animated “remember when” adventure conversations.

In contrast to her first, we were the only attendees at her 2nd birthday party. And without the rare luxury of an oven in Southeast Asia, I made a mini microwave mug cake masterpiece. She doesn’t get as much organic food as she used to, but she now eats tofu and tempeh. And when we pop past local fruit stalls she identifies dragon fruit, jackfruit and mangosteens. We all gave durian a few tries – and learned the hard way why this smelly fruit is banned in planes and hotel rooms!

We’ve made fleeting friendships along the way, with locals and expats, fellow travellers, and cats, dogs, chickens and ducks we’ve shared some of our experiences with. Each one has tattooed a mark on our journey, and it’s the connection, rather than the fact that we will likely never cross paths again, that has the greatest impact. We miss family and friends, but this can’t dominate our thoughts – knowing we’ll be moving on from any place compels us to relish what our senses take in, and live in the now.

Life’s not without stress. With a finite period of time in each place and having to decide where to move on to, and then find somewhere with a kitchen (to attempt cooking wholesome toddler meals with whatever ingredients are available), is taxing. The unknown is still unsettling, but we don’t fear it. We know we can make a new home anywhere. We’re a strong unit now. We know that whatever we leave behind will have left it’s mark, and whatever we find in front of us will be different, and for that very reason impactful.

The shape of our life has changed, and continues to change each time we re-pack our bags and head somewhere new. Now our only fear is whether we’d be able to fit this new shape back into the hole from our old life.

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Hitchhiking Away my Fears in Cambodia

I was pushing it away from me. This moment. I never really wanted to do it but somehow it had to happen. Rocio (my wife) pushed me into it and I must say I will never regret it. Never regret! It’s always a challenge to go for something new and different. To lift that blanket and step out into the cold, away from that cozy, warm bed called comfort zone. But it will be rewarding at the end, I promise!

I was sitting on the back of a pick-up truck, one hand grabbing my backpack, the other hanging on to the steel railings. We just caught a hitch from the rural mountain province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia to our planned destination of Kratie along the Mekong River. Our first hitchhiking ride had begun.

But let’s start from the beginning…

My wife and I decided to quit our 9-5 grind jobs and travel. We wanted to explore Southeast Asia and commenced on a six-month journey to discover Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Planning to spend around one month per country, we were keen on exploring each destination as a traveler, not as a tourist. Taking our time, trying to escape the well-trotted tourist paths and indulge ourselves in local life.

We were three months into our travels as we took a bus ride from the city of Siem Reap to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Half-way down the road the bus stopped and picked up a foreign woman. She boarded the bus, had a quick chat with the driver and sat down a row behind us. Curious about the situation we engaged in a conversation with her, asking her how she ended up taking the bus here, in the middle of nowhere. It turned out that she is a traveler who solely travels around the world by hitchhiking and not spending a single dime on transportation!

Overwhelmed by this story and elevated by the thought of doing it herself, my wife immediately talked me into doing this with her.

“Sure…but can we just at least finish this bus ride and see how and where we can do this? Also, we never did this before and I am not sure if Cambodia is the best country to start our hitchhiking travels.”
I managed to control the flame a bit, knowing that this topic will arise sooner or later again. Anyhow, we eventually reached Phnom Penh and stayed in town for around two days (without hitchhiking) and eventually booked an official ride (another tough convincing act!) to the rural province of Mondulkiri to experience an amazing encounter with endangered Cambodian elephants. Three days past and we had our next journey coming up, leaving the forest behind, destined for a small town named Kratie along the Mekong river, roughly 200 kilometers away from where we were.

The time came. I could no longer postpone this and I knew it.
We packed our bags, walking down along the only road of the town and stopped a kilometer away. Positioning ourselves on the side of the road, my wife started her first shy attempts of sticking out a thumb at passing cars. The sun was high up in the sky, burning down hard on our heads as we waited.

Nobody stopped.

I could not help but smile. I knew it, this was not such a great idea! How could I let myself get into this ridiculous situation? Standing on the side of a street in a tiny town in Cambodia, desperately waving down cars for a free ride.
But then it happened! A pick-up truck stopped.

We approached the driver and pointed out the direction we wanted to go on a map. No clue of each other’s languages we somehow found an agreement and jumped on the back of the car. Relieved, amazed and excited we made it to the next town and eventually ended up taking another ride all the way to Kratie.

I never thought I would say it but this was a starting point to an amazing journey and experience.
We proceeded with our trip across Southeast Asia, ending up traveling all through Cambodia and Myanmar as hitchhikers, traveling thousands of kilometers on the back of vans, cars and trucks. We met amazing people along the way, experienced local cultures and have stories to tell for a lifetime.

Don’t let fear dictate your actions, ever! Don’t let it keep you from experiencing new things and preventing you from taking on new adventures. Don’t let it stop you from moving on.
The experience I made were invaluable and helped me grow not only as a traveler but also as a human. I no longer overthink situations, I engage fear in a very different way and I believe this is the key in moving forward.

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The Polyglots and the Japanese Ramen Shop

June. The pullulating masses of Tokyo are at it again. As they always are. Every day. From when that great sun rises in the east to long after it sets and the city lights turn on and vibrate and hum with hubris, drowning out any sign of a starry sky. The city is always seething, roiling with men in charcoal suits carrying briefcases, pink-haired cosplayers striking poses, high-school girls wearing surgical masks and slipping them down to take drags on cigarettes. The LED billboards against the monolithic buildings offer everything the consumer could want. Accompanying the displays are sounds of coquettish giggles from silken-haired beauties and the unbelieving gasps of aberrantly dressed television stars.

I am crammed into a late-night ramen shop with Nakajima-san, who I speak English with, and Kenji, who I speak Spanish with, and four Japanese businessmen, still in their suits, who I try and speak Japanese with. I met Kenji in Spain six years ago, Nakajima-san in Peru (though he prefers to speak in English) two years ago, and the businessmen just an hour ago. The summer humidity is coalescing with the steam of boiling noodles and we are all mixed and sweating in a miasma that I am trying to navigate in these three languages.

With Kenji I am a different person.

“Oye, amigaso! Pídeme mas tallarines!”

Spain and South America taught me to be bold, to go up to women at bars and start talking to them directly, to belt out songs with my compadres even though I cannot carry a tune. So when I speak to Kenji I am all rumba and cumbia, salsa extra picante. I speak with my hands, pat him on the back, grab him by the shoulders and we laugh aloud despite the confined space.

The businessmen look on curiously.

“Ah. Gomennasai,” I say, suddenly reverting to my Japanese self. I bow ever-so-slightly, apologetically. They assure me that it is nothing. No harm no foul. But I know that in Japan I should be much quieter, even in a city as alive as Tokyo. They fill my glass with cold beer and the condensation comes instantly. I hold the glass with two hands and apologize again. I am inconveniencing them. I am sorry. I am sorry.

Nakajima-san turns to me, “You are learning the Japanese way now, I can see.”

“I’m trying. There are many rules in Japan though. I feel like it is impossible to learn them all. I’m afraid that I’m inadvertently offending someone every day.”

“Don’t worry. We are very forgiving in Japan. You are a foreigner. You do not have to be like us.”

But who should I be? I am always a foreigner.

The past decade of my travels has seemed to collide into that one Tokyo night – the languages I know, friends I have met, and the person that each place has made me. Traveling hasn’t just changed my life, it’s given me one. It has created me like a mixed-media sculpture. I am the rhythm of Latin beats and the silence of a falling cherry blossom in the snow. I am a dinner of tortilla española and conveyor belt sushi. I am some amalgamation of wabi-sabi and Andean huaino. And, despite so many experiences now, I am also still that American who once set out afraid and monolingual, yet to know anything about myself, yet to know anything about the world. Travel teaches us about the world, yes, but it teaches us much more about ourselves. And there is always more to discover: more languages to learn, more times to be afraid, more friends to make and sit next to and clink beers with.

“Hey, buddy. Here are your extra ramen noodles.”

I look up to see that Kenji, the one who speaks Spanish with me, was the one who just spoke that flawless English.

“What? You didn’t know I speak English?” he says. “Que locura, no?”

I laugh aloud again and both Nakajima-san and Kenji join me. Yes, we’re all travelers here. In our explorations, we have all learned a thing or two and we are not what you would expect. Underneath their Japanese façades, and my American one, lay the whole world of travels we’ve done. Our experiences have filled us like water fills a jar.

But we are always craving more. Perhaps because the jar is always too big. Or perhaps because we want to overflow with good experiences.

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The Amazingly Crowded Bath House in Budapest, Hungary

I sit on the second step hugging my knees. A plump figure wades past me sending rolls of water ashore, his rosy gut rippling with every stride. Unapologetic I think to myself, hugging my legs closer until my knee caps make an inaudible thud.

The water is lukewarm at best, hosting a sea of bodies, all buoyantly sifting through one another. I slide down another step. My body thanks me as I submerge an inch more of my skin, which is covered in textured polyps and upright hairs. My mind however, unfurls into a state of tantalising anxiety.

A woman glances over, her bathing suit warped around the pressure of her build, her skin pouring out at all angles. I look down apprehensively, my legs prickled with the growth of needle-like hairs. I retreat back into myself.

Two bodies slip in next to me on the stairs, their arms slung over the railings and legs limp across the tiled gradient. Personal space is few and far between in the Széchenyi bathhouse in Budapest. The irony being that I slowly lower myself down another step into the amass of bodies.

My hands are crinkled with riverine lines which distort under the swilling water. Older women cackle, their voices carrying over the dense expanse of fluttering limbs. I retreat further, thankful that my fetal position masks the slabs of abdominal flesh that stack atop each other.

What am I doing here? I think to myself. “One of the best in Budapest ” they all say, brazenly touted as a mark of heritage and experience. I envisage a miniscule voice peeping out from the proclamations of must-sees and to-dos, quietly uttering “if you can stand the sights and stares”.

I look up. One, two, three, four pairs of eyes, five, six, staring at me. Is my skin too pale? My stomach un-contained? My legs untamed?

An unassuming splash. I twist round, watching as a willowy figure who brandishes a two-piece dips her foot into the water. Relief. I edge down into the tepid abyss remaining close to the enamelled enclaves of the pool.

What now? My eyes inspect the horizon, double doors swing in and out, filing hoards of bodies which circumnavigate the premises. I sidle closer to the exit eventually reaching the far end of the pool. Success. My toes curve round the metallic rungs of the ladder as I hoist my body out of the water. I scramble towards the doors whilst cupping my elbows in each palm. I am out of the bath and into the bathhouse in Budapest.

Chatter and septic damp fill the air, contained within corridors leading to pools of every temperature. My eyes dart to the nearest one, without weighing up the pros of taking the plunge. Exhilaration.

Before I know it I’m on the first step. The second. The third. I slip into the water, my knees proudly bobbing above the surface.

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Feeling Gratitude in the West of the UAE

Go West, young woman, go West!!! The Western region of Abu Dhabi is probably one of the lesser celebrated regions of the UAE. Most individuals traveling to the UAE for the first time want to experience the glitz and glamour and the frenzied pace of it’s big sister cities, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Yet, when you want to escape the chaos inherent of “big city” life and when you really want to become truly embedded in Arabic/Middle Eastern culture, you head due West. So, West is where I traveled on a brilliant Tuesday afternoon at the beginning of March.

About 90 minutes west (approximately 124 miles) from the center of Abu Dhabi, you’ll stumble upon a provincial town called Madinat Zayed (pronounced Medina Zy-ed) and adoringly referred to as “MZ” or “MZed” by locals and expats alike. There is a certain unspoken kinship amongst folks here and authenticity that draws thousands of visitors to “MZ” every year. Locals pride themselves on knowing each other on a first name basis. In fact, one of my first stops into town (based upon a recommendation by a colleague) was “The Falafel Shop”(also known as “Cafeteria al Dhauk al Shami “) sandwiched in between the Lebanese fruit and “legume” shop and the parfumerie, and known to serve up the “meanest” falafel and chicken shawarmas in town. I was introduced to Mr. Moyin, the dashing brown-eyed Arab expat from Syria with the infectious smile, working 6 days out of the 7 day work week, and one of the sole reasons women pack on the “UAE 10”. For just seven dirhams (approximately 2 dollars U.S) you can have a platter of gingerly fried hummus balls and “chips”, replete with cucumber yogurt sauce and toppings (pickled carrots, onions, and peppers), spiced according to taste. “ Yes, I’ll take one to eat ‘sur place’ (on the premises) and one for the road”.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of being out West in this desert oasis is the frequent camel sightings you will be privy to during your comings and goings to Liwa, home to the one of the world’s largest sand dunes. On any given morning when the sky is pregnant with daybreak, at approximately 6:28 am, and on any given late afternoon/early evening when the sky is glimmering with shards of light at approximately 6:33 pm, caravans of camels exit the race track and are herded onto “The Million Street”, the street where millions of dirhams are literally made. The trainers/handlers of the camels, usually hailing from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, are often just as fascinated by your unannounced presence as you are with these beauteous desert animals. If you are fortunate to come during the month of December (between December 12-23), you will be able to participate in the region’s largest festival—the Al Dhafra festival which features a plethora of “camel activities”- camel racing, a camel auction, and a camel “beauty” contest amongst other Bedouin cultural activities. Camels, some worth well over 15 million dirhams (approximately 4 million dollars in local U.S currency) race around a 1.5 mile racetrack, jockeying for a 1s place finish to take home the coveted prize of 1 million dirhams (approximately $366,000). Likewise, the winner of “the most beautiful camel contest” can fetch up to 1 million dirhams. Factors include leg length, general fitness and shape, length of eyelashes, and the droopiness of the lip. If you haven’t figured it out already, camel racing in the UAE is just as prestigious as horse racing in America.

After retiring from the race track, there is nothing more invigorating and relaxing to do than unwind in Madinat Zayed’s 4 star gem, The Tilal Liwa Hotel, which sits approximately 12 miles west of the city center and is perched amidst a plethora of majestic sand dunes. The Tilal, a popular honeymoon and business destination for Westerners and a local hangout for Emiratis, is a constant reminder of the dichotomy between the unparalleled serenity of desert living and the routine brashness of city living, and was one of the main reasons why I decided to “Go West”.

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Exploring Fantastic Ireland By Myself

I got off the bus, and departed from the new friends I had just made. I knew I had to do this alone. As I walked towards the tip of the cliff, I thought about all the places I had been to beforehand. This was the first time I was by myself.
On the last day of a trip in Dubai, I paid $200 to jump off a building. Right in front of the tallest building in the world, two men strapped me onto a swing, did a quick countdown, and I zip-lined 300 feet above the Dubai Fountain. But my brother went right before me.
Now I was standing in the town of Liscannor, Ireland. Right before this trip, I went to Paris, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Edinburgh. In all of these cities, I was with my best friend. And this was it. I was alone walking from the parking lot where the bus had stopped to step onto the Cliffs of Moher.
Little by little the ocean appeared and the sides of the cliffs became bigger, and I began to see just some of its 8 miles. At 700 feet, I could see