The Freedom of the South African Sky

December 6th, 2016

AdventureSouth Africa

Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

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Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

*                    *                     *

Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

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Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tourist attraction proved to be a welcome place to take a break before the summit push. Inside the abandoned tea house we lit a fire and talked about our dreams for the future. Staring into the flames we agreed that we all saw more hard won summits and even greater adventures in our futures. Inspired, I scribbled “On this peak, we are free” on a beam near the roof of this incomplete structure. Sensing some urgency to make the most of the daylight, we continued up the steep, rocky slope and reached the spiny ridge that would take us to the summit.

I hesitated at the sight of the ridge. On one side of it, the world seemed to drop off into infinity. A fall in that direction would certainly mean an untimely end. Even still, as dangerous as it was, the desire to stand on a peak and reach for the clouds pulled me slowly over the ridge. Taking a cue from one of the more experienced hikers in the group, I dropped to my knees and inched along the narrow ledge toward what I hoped was the finish line.

A cairn marked a small rocky outcrop which made up the summit that could barely fit all of us and a friend stretched out his hand, helping me to my feet. As the group arrived we carefully embraced each other, thrilled for having made it to the top of this mountain. From this perch, towns were reduced to specks, highways were all but lines drawn in the sand and the place from where we started our hike seemed like another universe. Nearby peaks stood in solidarity with us, but the clouds were so distant and served as a reminder that as far as we had gone, there was so much more ahead of us. In this moment I realized that we had each only begun to climb our mountains and that our potential was as endless as the blue sky that stretched before us. More summits and passport stamps awaited us, as well as love and heartbreak. We would learn, grow, build careers and families, form new friendships and carve out little portions of the world to call home. All of this was clear to me from where we stood. At that moment, on that peak, we had never been freer.

Years later, I still find my freedom in the mountains. There is freedom in breathing thin, lightly spruce-scented high elevation air. There is freedom in knowing that putting one foot in front of the other is all it takes to reach your goals. And above all else, there is freedom to be found in standing on a peak and looking out above the rest of the world.

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A walk in the clouds at Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka

Clouds. That’s all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak. The mountain that I had gotten up at two o’clock in the morning to hike. The one with 5200 stairs that I had so diligently ascended assuring myself the view from the top would be incredible and that it would be the highlight of my trip to Sri Lanka. But, after battling the rain and physical fatigue on top of my jetlag, all I saw from the top of Adam’s Peak were clouds.

I had only booked my ticket from Washington, D.C. to Sri Lanka days earlier. After months of submitting endless applications, I finally received a new offer and gave two weeks notice at my unfulfilling job as a U.S. government contractor. I decided that I deserved a reward for all of my hard work and also wanted a break before starting my new position at a non-profit. So, I bought a surprisingly affordable ticket to Colombo and left three days later.

Anxiety almost prevented me from going on this trip. I was so tightly wound from living in D.C. that traveling far away without a solid itinerary made me overthink whether this was a good idea. I had just moved into a new apartment and still hadn’t unpacked. Maybe I should just take my week off and settle in. I secretly hoped that my e-visa be rejected or that something last minute would come up to prevent me from going on my trip. But, my wishes never amounted to anything, and I could find no reason not to go.

Before arriving, I knew practically nothing about Sri Lanka except what I had gleaned from skimming travel blogs and websites days prior. I did know for sure that I wanted to make it to Adam’s Peak. Nestled in the highlands of Sri Lanka, this mountain is known for housing the Sri Pada or “sacred footprint,” which is significant to believers of four major religions. Buddhists believe the footprint to be that of Buddha, Hindus that of Shiva, and Muslims and Christians that of Adam.

I was prepared to take on the challenge and this entire trip solo. But, I lucked into making some new friends at my first hostel who had roughly the same travel itinerary as me. Despite being the rainy season, the two American girls and I took the risk to hike Adam’s Peak and set off from our hotel in the early morning hours. Outfitted in worn out running shoes, jeans, and carrying an umbrella in my hand, I did not look at all prepared for a strenuous hike.

However, thousands of steps and several hours later, we made it to the little camp at the top where twenty or so other hikers had gathered. They were mostly tourists like us, but there was one Sri Lankan guide who had been hired to accompany a group. Just after six o’clock, we all stood facing east, hoping the thick rainclouds would miraculously disappear so that we’d have the perfect vista for this amazing sunrise the guidebooks had promised.

We never saw the sunrise from the top of Adam’s Peak that day. The Sri Lankan guide claimed that he had made the hike to the top over a hundred times and that this was only the third time that the sunrise was not visible. So, this wasn’t the picture perfect travel experience I had expected it to be. But, sunrise or not, my footprints were now alongside that of Buddha, Shiva, or Adam, whatever you believe. Not too shabby for only three days of planning.

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Finding Freedom on a rooftop in Iquitos, Peru

Trying hard not to panic, I once again compared the bed-bug bite photos on my laptop’s screen to the bite marks on my leg. There was no point in denying it any longer; I was a victim. A drop of sweat slid slowly down my back. A tuk-tuk driver screamed something intangible at the owner of the restaurant as he dashed past, his brightly painted machine belching black smoke into the street’s already suffocating air. The place stank of old ketchup and fried meat. I bit unenthusiastically into my cold, leathery burger and wondered again about the origins of that peculiar meat patty.

The images of slaughtered wildlife I had seen the day before in the town’s market – turtles missing half their bodies, juvenile caimans tied up with filthy ropes, and vultures, vultures sitting on the roofs, squabbling over the animal innards scattered all over the place – filled my mind as I put the burger down and pushed the plate away. It began to drizzle outside. I realised I had left my rain jacket back at the hostel. I got up, paid my bill and seriously considered crying.

I felt alone, dejected and somewhat lost in Iquitos. Located deep in the Amazon rainforests of Northern Peru, the town was dirty, crowded and hot. The three friends, with whom I got along marvellously and had travelled with for a week, had left Iquitos for Lima the day before and I already missed them terribly. But that wasn’t all. I also felt cursed; a few days ago I lost my iPhone for the second time since I left home. And that felt like the final nail in my coffin after all my other electronic devices – external hard drive, laptop, even my brand new GoPro camera – had been damaged in a series of freak accidents over the past two months.

I felt depleted after months of travel, tired of constant movement. And I couldn’t make up my mind as to where to go next. I was running short of budget. I wanted to visit Guyana, but it was the rainy season there and I couldn’t even decide whether I should go via Brazil (the much slower, harder way) or Colombia and Panama (much more expensive). Internet was painfully slow at the best of times in Iquitos, hampering my attempts at reading up about my next destination. Add a bed-bugs infection to the mix and I was steps away from a complete break-down.

Back at the hostel, I climbed up onto the roof to get some fresh air. In the gathering darkness, I spotted a black resistance band – the kind you use at a gym – resting on the waist-high wall. I picked it up gently, holding it by its handles, feeling its elasticity, its tension. It felt like a sign. As if it was beckoning to me. Exercise had always helped lift my mood, and I had never been in more dire need of cheering up than just then.
‘You have a choice! You can always just pack up and go home’. Hannah, one of my travel buddies, had told me when I had confided in her about my feelings. I did have a choice; I could mourn for myself, or do something about my rotten spirit.

I got down on the ground and did a set of push-ups. I gripped the rusty metal bar that ran above my head across the walls and hauled myself up. I reached for the resistance band and performed some of my old work-out routines, as if I was back at my local gym. As I pushed myself harder and my muscles began to ache, I began to accept that I had chosen to be doing this; to be here. Just like I had independently decided to travel in the first place, I was now free to decide how I wanted to feel about travelling too.

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Driving brave and finding peace at the Fairhope Pier

There were 62 wooden steps from the sun-dappled park by the bay to the top of the tree-covered bluff. I know. I counted each careful step I made on the sun-bleached staircase while clinging to the rough handrail, hoping not to snag a splinter. For me, that day, the 40-foot vertical trek was a monumental feat. So was the entire 40 mile trip from my Mobile home to picturesque Fairhope, a small city nestled along the inner curve on the eastern shore of Alabama’s Mobile Bay.

As dawn approached, I lay in bed and wrestled with the idea of driving through the frenzied traffic of I-10 into a tunnel and a bayway with a reputation for daily accidents. I wanted to go. I knew it would be good for me. But it had only been four months since I’d returned to driving after tearing all the ligaments in my right ankle. Finally, I took Lady Macbeth’s advice to her husband, “screwed my courage to the sticking place” and made the 45-minute trip.

As soon as I reached the bottom of the steep road to the bayfront park, I smiled then took a deep breath. I was surprised at how many visitors were already at the Fairhope pier that early on a weekday, but I still found a good parking space facing the bay. When I opened the car door, the wind nearly tore my straw sunhat from my head. It was early May, but a rare late-spring cold snap had swept along the Gulf Coast and I shivered in spite of the long-sleeved sweater I wore. I walked half of the quarter mile long pier watching the murky waves chase one another toward shore, but the early morning sun refused to warm me so I climbed back into the car.

Through the windshield, I watched tiny birds dart in and out of the white houses perched atop tall poles sprouting from the water’s shadowy depths. Pelicans drifted lazily across the sky then dove like B-52 bombers and with an impressive splash, claimed a fish for breakfast before placidly winging their way back into the sky. In my rearview mirror I spied some overzealous, underdressed yoga students posing in the grassy paths that bisected the vibrant rose garden behind me. I shivered on their behalf. For an hour or so, I stayed in the car watching the shifting sunlight scatter glowing white sparks atop the waves. In my improvised cocoon, I sang, prayed, and read the Bible until the manicured garden enticed me.

I braved the chilly air, now a good bit warmer, to wander among dozens of yellow, pink, red, and white roses, stopping to inhale their delicate scent. The lapping waves and squawking gulls accompanied me as I meandered down the pier and back then strolled the perimeter of the park. Beside the path, I found a sunlit spot where I kicked off my shoes and dropped into tai chi’s horse stance, a pose that sort of resembles a dance plié. The sun warmed my face and a gentle breeze tinged with salt spray tousled my hair. I felt my breathing slow and my muscles relax as my hands glided through the air. When I finished the exercise, I sat on a wooden bench nestled under a live oak tree and watched frantic moms speedwalking with babystrollers. Older couples, walking hand in hand, passed by and offered a nod or smile.

The nearby bluff towering above me caught my attention and I peered around the trees to size it up. A little uncertain, I stepped onto the dirt path and started climbing the worn stairs built into the hillside. Even though I held onto tightly to the rail, after a few hesitant steps, my ankle felt strong and so did I. When I reached the top, I turned and looked out at the panoramic view of the bay where the sun made the dancing waves sparkle. The bluff was carpeted with thick green grass and dotted by plentiful live oaks and longleaf pines offering homes to pelicans and herons, cardinals and egrets. I stood at the bluff’s edge and looked out to where the sky and earth met before they tumbled into the water. There I drank in all the gifts Fairhope and nature offered me. A smile spread across my face as I realized I had conquered my fear that day. Maybe that’ll set me free to conquer a few more.

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Letting Go of the Past in Unseen Japan

My first year in Japan was tough. Living on my own without family or roommates to check up on me, distract me or keep me company was challenging, but it was also my first year without a pet. For six years, I had lived in the company of my ferret, Quazar, who was being care for by my mother until I returned from my Japanese adventure. It would be more costly than any of us realized.

In the six months it took me to come home for a visit, the spirit of my pet had deteriorated. His swift transition from a gleefully chubby carpet shark to a sad, fur-covered old man broke my heart. He didn’t play anymore. He didn’t run. He only hobbled to and fro, physically normal though obviously troubled.

I should have said goodbye when I left for the airport, but part of me brushed the act off as a bad omen; a symbol of final departure. He would still be there waiting when I was ready to return so long as I didn’t say goodbye, because to do so would be to perform the last rites of our pet-owner bond. That was what I told myself, and the belief lasted a whole three months.

When my mother called to inform me of his passing, which occurred quietly in her arms during a morning nap, I felt something even bigger give way inside of me. In addition to the initial pangs of shock, grief and regret, I could sense one of the strongest tethers to my homeland snapping in two. The need to call my life in Japan to a halt within a few short years suddenly vanished. A small voice in the back of mind whispered, a little too coldly, “Well, there’s one less reason to go home.”

Months flew by as I dealt with the death of my pet while battling culture shock, and it took years for me to forgive myself for abandoning my ferret to pursue my own dreams. As this time passed though, other tethers snapped too. The more I grew and developed as a person, the less I had in common with people back home. As more of my experiences abroad took shape, my sense of normal and weird shifted.

Electric toilet seats became normal, and when I traveled home, I loathed the chill of the ordinary bathroom fixtures. Being surrounded by English speakers became strange, exhausting and chaotic, my introverted brain struggling to remember who I was talking to or what I was doing in the context of so much I could easily understand. The tether of “American” and “normal” being synonymous in my mind had come apart. Even in my home town, sometimes I felt more foreign than ever.

Meanwhile in Japan, my life still felt like it was just beginning. Quazar’s death came just as things were starting to get more serious with a boyfriend I had only been seeing for a few months. I had been looking forward to bringing my Japanese beau home for the “ferret test”, in which Quazar’s interest in one of my potential mates likely spelled bliss or doom for the relationship. I realized sadly that this had been the final test. There was a new love in my life, a real one and a good one. No further ferret tests would be required.

As events unfolded that could have resulted in my departure– from the sudden demise of the company I was working for to a series of major natural disasters– I came to realize that every single broken tether that once connected me to my home country had been recycled, strengthening my bond to my chosen home.

Freedom, as I have enjoyed it, is not having nothing left to lose, as the Janis Joplin song would have us believe. It is instead having a choice and the ability to make it in our own interest with regards to our own benefit.

For some, that’s an endless highway on a hot summer night. For others, it’s the next plane ticket to somewhere new. For me, it’s the ability to continue exploring a place I want to call home.

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Stumbling on unexpected Freedom in Guyana

One of my boyhood memories is occasional stepping out of our house to grocery store at Muthalagupatti (Village of Beautiful Pearl) in South India. I was ever ready to rush and fetch at the bidding of mom something for emergency cooking when the regular stock was over. This memory of off-and-on experience awakens in me the enjoyment of maternal love and boyish freedom from care. And something more too—because near the shop was the church; and every time I passed by it I would gladly advert to the rumor of angels (years before Peter L. Berger’s A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural).

As years went by I heard people connected to me calling me and leading me to enjoy the freedom of crisscrossing India. With the maturity of years I also heard voices inside and outside of me, not unlike those of Joan of Arc, that kept urging me to venture farther afield and journey purposefully, not simply for pleasure but promotion of freedom. And so some fifty-odd years later I found myself far away in small Guyana which people, even learned and widely traveled, mistakenly call British Guiana even now, fifty years after its independence—a sign that people somehow unconsciously cannot recognize, let alone appreciate, freedom even where it exists.

I spent my year at Miss Phoebe a small town along the Berbice river, living and working along with another Indian at the Guyana Human Development Center. My long journey in Guyana started with my first steps towards a Church, some 20 minutes’ walk from our Center. I traveled there daily around 6 am against the wish of my companion. After crossing the Atlantic, I was not ready to be cooped up in the Center all day. I enjoyed the morning walk even on rainy days especially as I pursued a mission: I was exploring not only the area but human hearts to make them listen to the voices of Heaven, channeled hopefully even through mine in the Church and outside. The visitors were about six; but with their morning trip they made their rendezvous holy and happy. The zeal and freedom of their daily commitment made up for the absent many. Patricia for example traveled from Bush Lot double the distance as I, spending Guyanese $ 200 daily. Mark Kum, an eighth-class boy, living nearby came regularly. He did the readings for the dozen ears and pleased everyone. He lifted everybody’s hope as Patricia wished him to become a bishop!

Enthusiastic about that daily constitutional I never missed it even in rainy weather. But I was loath to do a weekly trip, with my companion, to the Saturday market near the Church. It was a necessary task for our daily living but I hated that chore. For one thing, I had never done work of that kind before, as an adult and that an intellectual. Anyway, that weekly travel with my companion posed to be a bugbear for weeks. Without knowing my thoughts and feelings, one day Patricia complimented me on my weekly marketing. Her remark jolted my intellectual curiosity; it shook my heart to sense the good perceived by her feminine mind. Without knowing she made me realize this: traveling is not simply traveling places but traveling around hearts. Going marketing even with someone annoying to me charted a path for weaving human geography: seeking and encountering people and knowing ourselves as known by them. Traveling all the way from India I was not doomed to keep myself aloof at the Center or cocooned in the Church but to mingle with the populace buzzing with life. That was no small discovery of travel as “human discovery.”

From then on I found myself enjoying our market visit, discovering interesting people. I was surprised to notice some vendors’ interest in me as a recent arrival from India from where their grandparents had come as indentured labor. They even seemed to wait for me as I sensed from their greeting. Once as I was getting ready to pay for my weekly buy another buyer was ready with her payment; the vendor signed to her to wait till I paid first! I felt embarrassed by her preferential treatment of me but it was done with a smile to the other. Outdoing her was a poor woman from whom I bought some gooseberry for $ 60, more for her sake than for mine. I paid her $ 100 and she returned $ 50. When I pointed out she gave me more than my due she pathetically lisped she had no change. I returned gently the whole amount overwhelmed by her generosity. She took it without fuss humbly. If only the greedy MNCs shared the freedom of her tribe!

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Beware of the sneaky trolls in Iceland

We were in Rekjanes peninsula south of Reykjavik in Iceland where at Christmas time it stayed light for only four hours. Our cabin nestled in the glistening snow amongst dark crags and larva formations and the sound of the ocean could be heard as it rushed ashore. Here folklore told of elves and fairies who frequented the black terrain. Grýla the Christmas troll being one of them. She used to gather up those on the naughty list and take them back for her stew pot but in recent years she and her 13 Yule lads have been reformed. They now leave gifts in shoes which the Icelanders place on their window sills – so just in case we left ours out as well. The following morning they were filled to overflowing so I think we must have been high up on the good list!

By the time we slipped into the silky steaming water of the blue lagoon later that Christmas morning, dawn was not far away. Gradually the blue intensified as the sun rose low on the horizon and the bright moon slipped out of sight. Our eyebrows and hair froze and we looked like trolls ourselves. With bushy white icicles above our eyes and spiky hair it looked as if Jack Frost had been our hairdresser.

We toasted the day with a glass of champagne and lingered for ages in the warm before hunger pangs tempted us out. In the evening we feasted on lamb instead of turkey. Then we settled down to watch a traditional seasonal movie. It was not long however before we gave up our seats in front of the TV for those on the balcony outside where mother nature was putting on her own performance in the night sky

Here the greatest advantage of our location was the darkness. With just the twinkling lights from other cabins it was our greatest asset. Here we watched from our own cabin the beauty of the northern lights as they danced and pulsated in giant green ribbon across the night sky. We needed to take no excursion. We watched from the windows, the porch, the balcony and even the hot tub!

When the mercury fell well below freezing the track outside our warm cosy bolthole took on the feel of an ice truckers encounter and we slid on the icy surface but the well equipped 4 by 4 made light work of it as we explored this magical wonderland.

One day took the standard Golden circle route in reverse. This way we arrived in the mountains above Selfross in the half light. Eerie and magical they appeared an intoxicating blue. Then as the sun set in front of us on our return journey it created amazing bands of pink and yellow against an ever darkening sky above. Then with darkness came recollections of trolls as the moonlight seemed to turn every rock into a small mischievous form.
The days passed, each as perfect as the one before. For me, few places on earth can offer such a sense of freedom and awe as Iceland in Winter time. Providing that is you aren’t on the naughty list and taken prisoner by the Christmas troll.

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Easter In Israel: I Stood In the Middle of The Conflict

It was Easter Sunday in Jerusalem. Violence and bloodshed were in the air. This was only my third day in Old Jerusalem, and even I could feel that a clash was all but inevitable. The only real questions were:  “Would people be killed, or just injured?” And, “could I be one of them?”

I stood in the middle. To my right stood a squad of Israeli soldiers—an angry grit etched on most of their faces. Others had that look of nervous trepidation that sometimes washes over people when they realize that they are about to be shot at for the first time. There was nervous movement and shuffling. I heard static-infused radio chatter and the sharp clicks of weapons checks. Soldiers shifted at the direction of their leaders. Magazines were tapped, and helmets donned. They were prepared to engage and wring from the air the compressed hostility created by the Arabs cramming themselves in the vise of the Muslim Quarter’s tight walls and cobblestone streets.

To my left was a crowd of protesting Arabs. Most were young women. Their shrouded faces haunted me. Their shrieks were reminiscent of the Confederate Rebel Yell. The decibel level of those eerie, high-pitched squeals magnified as the sound waves bounced back and forth across the alley stone walls. This was the face of the enemy—young women, or not.

Only a couple meters and a few thin metal barricades separated the two. And there I stood. The atmosphere was incendiary. All that was required for a massive explosion of violence was the slightest ember. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. With each click of the shutter, my breath and heart rate quickened. As an adventure travel writer, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Armed with my camera only, I was standing smack dab in the middle of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Centuries-old religious traditions conspired to create this powder keg. It is rare, but this year’s religious calendar called for the simultaneous celebration of Passover, and Easter by both Eastern Orthodox and Western Christians. Jerusalem was filled with religious pilgrims. There had been much violence around the Temple Mount, and Israeli soldiers regularly policed the area. Indeed, even at the Western Wall—the holiest place Jews are permitted to pray—security does not take a back seat to religious observance. And this ultimately led to Israeli soldiers barricading access to the Temple Mount from the streets of the Muslim Quarter.

Israelis take security seriously, particularly when compared to Americans. It is more than just heightened vigilance. Israel is in a perpetual ready state for war. In part, this is because Israel is surrounded by terrorist groups, if not nation states, committed to the slaughter of Israelis and to the violent destruction of the Jewish state. A visit to the border shared by Israel and Jordan–the most peaceful nation bordered by Israel–confirms that Israel is in a constant state of preparedness for war. And that unflinching, unapologetic protection of its security was on display just meters in front of me.

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Seconds drew out like hours. Every shout, every insult, every taunt felt as though it would ignite the fuse. And then finally, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Now, everything moved in a surreal slow motion. An Arab protestor hurled a water bottle at the Israeli soldiers. The bottle tumbled end-over-end through the air; its arc right on target, striking a soldier in the forehead. Batons drawn, the Israeli soldiers stormed through the barricades and into the crowd.

The faces of fear, vile contempt, and savage brutality are permanently etched in my mind. Many were beat to the ground. There was no quarter given. Even elderly women were beat without remorse if they posed a risk of harm. Look at their faces. There is resentment and hate. There is cowardice and brutality. There is fear and aggression.

The group surged forward. The soldiers were grossly outnumbered. Then, without warning, there were loud, dull thuds, followed by sounds of metal crashing against stone. Several tear gas canisters were lobbed into the group. For emphasis, some Israelis soldiers fired rubber riot control bullets into the pockets of Arabs who refused to retreat.

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You Can Make Anything Meaningful in Australia

The “ultimate freedom,” as Joyce Meyer says, “is to be free from the need to impress others.” Two years after graduating from university, I stood in my white visor and apron, serving a customer a salad at an eatery in Melbourne, Australia and thought about the quote that just appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

During those past two years, it seemed like I went on infinite plane rides and dozens of nauseating bus trips, had hundreds of empty conversations at hostels and endless attempts to try new things. as I continued to drift from city to city, I started to notice people going about their daily lives. They wore business clothes and carried groceries, and I wondered what the home they are going home to is like. Did they have kids? Would they see their friends tonight? I watched groups of friends at restaurants and lingered just long enough to fantasize about what it would be like to have a support system again. I imagined what it would like to not have to have a first conversation with everyone I met every day. To have people to call at a moment’s notice for a cup of tea or run into an old colleague or a friend from high school unexpectedly on the street. To have people remember you as that girl, the one who achieved x and succeeded in y. People who know that working at a salad bar in Melbourne isn’t my single story, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it.

I had come to Australia three months prior on a working holiday visa to feed my insatiable desire to continue moving. I believed that by being able to go wherever I wanted (given my financial boundaries) and being able to do whatever I wanted, I was supposed to be free. Wasn’t I? So, why didn’t I feel free? Why did I feel devoid of warmth, self-conscious and insecure if this was the lifestyle I had always dreamed of? It’s as if travel and these odd jobs that I’d been doing, where I had always felt a sense of adventure, had become a never-ending chore. Like the dream where you do the same thing over and over again, having to start over again just before almost finishing the task. I’m wasn’t waking up because I didn’t want it to end yet. But it ceased to propel me forward.

While my friends from university were Peace Corps members, economic analysts and nonprofit program directors, I was on the other end of the earth feeling emptiness in doing what I thought brought me fulfillment. I confided in my friend, Justin. “It’s two years after I graduated,” I wrote him, “and I’m nowhere near where I expected myself to be by this point. I feel like I’m not doing anything.”

“You can make anything meaningful! Even making salads!” he exclaimed, as if to tell me, who cares what you’ve “achieved”- are you making others happy? Are you spreading love? His advice got me thinking about why I felt like I was trying to get across a crumbling bridge. Was it because no one was praising me for my academic achievements or a lucrative fundraising campaign?

The next morning, I vowed to change my attitude. As I took the Sandringham train and got off at Windsor Station, I took deep breaths. It doesn’t matter who I am to these people, I thought to myself, it doesn’t matter how I got here or who I am or what I’ve achieved. It matters that I create a welcoming environment for all.
I had the power to be a force of positivity in everyone’s day. Being sincere and heartfelt, I greeted each customer with a warm smile. As I put carrots, beets and extra chicken in their salads, we laughed, talked about their days and joked about the weather. One man with glasses and curly hair walked in with a bouquet of flowers. As he gushed about his wife, I learned it was their first wedding anniversary. When another woman walked in feeling stressed, I listened with a sympathetic ear.

Leaving my ego behind, I surged with the intangible compassion spreading in the room. From then on, the more people that passed through my life weren’t merely the people that I would never see again; they were the people I had the honor to come into contact with. Uplifted by the interactions with people, I felt limitless. Capable of anything. I didn’t need to impress anyone to feel neighborly love or offer an understanding perspective. There, in that space, I was unshackled.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Adventure Hiking in the Majestic Rocky Mountains

I can’t say for sure when the first time I laid eyes on them was, but the Rocky Mountains have always featured in my life. They grace the provincial flag, appear on the currency, were a frequent locale for family vacations and could be perceptible from a distance on a clear day from my prairie home. Their seemingly effortless dominance over the landscape and tendency to be draped in clouds inspired a sense of wonder in me like nothing else. I recall one camping trip where my father and I rode an ATV up the side of a mountain. Fluffy white clouds lingered around the mountain’s neighboring peaks so I asked him if he would drive me to the top. Once there, I thought I might be able to stretch my arms up and climb on top of one. Then I would be free to see the world as clouds may float away to wherever they please.

Since then, I have chased the top of mountains and I still recall the joy of one of my first Rocky Mountain summits. My friends and I had headed to the mountains for a camping trip as a sort of sendoff before my upcoming semester abroad in France. Fall was fast approaching and cold hung in the air as we set out that morning. With daylight working against us, the more experienced hikers in the group urged me to begin our climb post haste. With that we winded our way through thick spruce forest, passing the time with laughter and small talk. My lungs and legs grew tired as it took hours to break tree line and make our way up the long scree slope toward the ridge where the summit lied.

The skeleton of an ill-conceived tour