“I’m jealous,” I whine to my mom, “I never have the same kind of cool experiences as you.”
She was telling me about her many adventures, living on contraband boats from Iquitos from Belem and escaping from a Moroccan prison.
She laughed. “Sometimes when you travel, you get caught up in where you are in a way that doesn’t allow you to fully process the moment. Write down your experiences, because while they may not seem life changing in the moment, they mean a lot more when looking back.”
So the following is a brisk look back at the years and the moments that I never want to forget. And while they may only hold meaning to myself, I believe that one of the best parts of traveling is being able to share your experiences and inspire others to seek and explore, to investigate the habitat and lifestyle of the other, opening avenues of communication and tolerance.
After exploring Ramallah on my own for several days, I got stranded on a Sunday morning when the busses weren’t running. Needing to get back to Jerusalem to catch my UNRWA bus back to Jordan and barely speaking the language, I hopped in a taxi - however, Palestinians aren’t allowed to cross the border and enter Jerusalem, leading to a very confused and stressed state when I was dropped off at a checkpoint and told that I would have to make the rest of the journey myself. Waiting in line with hundreds of people waiting patiently to cross to the other side, I was internally freaking out, seeing so many having to turn back after being denied entrance. Eventually I made my way through and immediately began sprinting from the checkpoint to the UNRWA office through neighborhoods of Orthodox Jews and Muslim merchants, stopping the bus just as it was starting to roll out of the gates.
In the Masai Mara on safari, a pack of lions circled our car after being chased out of the shade of a tree by an elephant wanting a nap, sniffing out the warm breakfast we had packed in the back. My father was terrified, but I kept asking the driver to slow down so I could take pictures.
In Zarqa I lived with an Arab family during Ramadan, every night eating with the entire family, going house to house to visit children, grandchildren, uncles, nieces. Sometimes they would all crowd in one of the tiny houses, eating giant dinners filled with mansaf and dates, with fifteen children giggling while using all the English they could muster. Sometimes, the little ones would even put a hijab on me, begging their parents to take pictures. I was the only Westerner in the area, stubbornly walking to work every day in the awful summer heat, inspiring confused stares everywhere I went. Once I happened to be walking through one of the refugee camps for home visits on the last official day of school, getting to see children of all ages bursting out of the classrooms onto the streets, throwing their papers into the air and enjoying the new sense of freedom. The young boys would shout at me asking for my Snapchat, while the girls would shoot me bright big smiles.
Eastern Europe with Genevieve was filled walking and coffee shops; vlogging and exploring; nesting at restaurants for hours and hours. We travelled through the mountains by busses that were so hot they nearly gave us fever dreams, being the only girls surrounded with old men who’d spend every break smoking while I danced outside in the frozen tundra without any shoes in order to cool down.
And while I’ve previously written about my DPRK experience, I may have ignored some of the bits including snake vodka, Icelandic chewing tobacco, illegally filming military checkpoints, binging on North Korean beer, some wild karaoke, smuggled currency, nearly being stuck there forever, and many, many jokes about stealing children.
In Erbil, I would wander out into the weekend markets, crowded with men trying to buy cheap shoes and goods for their families. I decided to take a shared taxi to Dohuk, having to pass through the outskirts of Mosul on the way. Once the other passengers left, the driver was worried about me gallivanting through Dohuk on my own and decided to accompany me through the streets. While giving me a tour of the area, he recounted wild stories and showed me pictures on his phone of his time in the peshmerga, brandishing a huge gun as well as a proud smile. When a few boy gave me some trouble on the side of the street, my peshmerga guide threatened to hurt them if they kept talking, leading to a few pushes that luckily got stopped short before an actual fight began. “Arabs,” he said, shaking his head, “they’re all terrorists.” Eventually, we began the drive back to Erbil, stopping midway to full up the gas. We ducked into a dingy building in the middle of a desert, miles away from any semblance of civilization. In this little hut were maybe twenty young men, playing decades old arcade games and screaming at each other over FIFA games on miniature tvs. We played, and although I was horribly losing, my new friend let me win a couple matches in order to save my dignity. Eventually we got back on the road, after a couple hours of me trying to figure out if I was actually going to be taken back to Erbil or if this was my new life. With no phone service or way to get back otherwise, I was completely at the whim of my Kurdish driver. I didn’t have an ID with me, so I was stopped at a checkpoint near Mosul and almost forced to get out of the car and return to Dohuk, the authorities not believing that I merely forgot my passport at my hostel. Luckily, they let me through after some intense begging, and I returned to my bed just as sunset hit.
Sometimes my adventures are even more impulsive – in Muscat, I jumped off the side of a 20-meter sinkhole and nearly fractured my lower spine, not being able to walk for a week.
In Bagan, I rode around on motorbikes and scaled the sides of temples; I got food sickness from delicious coconut rice while watching the sunset, and talked to locals about the refugee crisis. In Inle Lake, I got stuck in the pouring rain while out on a tiny boat in a floating village. I biked miles to a vineyard to go wine tasting, before celebrating New Years Eve on the rooftop in remote village and then in a tiny local restaurant with live music and kids singing while using tables and pots as percussion. I rode on the back of a pickup truck overnight through the rain on my way to the airport, crying at the thought of leaving.
I walked around the Vatican at midnight, drunkenly singing panjang umurnya to my best friend during a surprise weekend full of day-time mojitos and corny jokes for her birthday.
In the middle of a field in Dusseldorf, I took the most beautiful pictures of Sonia, with sun sparks piercing the frame as her green eyes blended in to the world behind her - potentially due to the synthetic mushrooms we had just taken. Later, Sonia left me in Paris for two days to spend time with her close friends because she thought I would harsh her vibe, leaving me to traverse the city, visiting every museum, garden, monument, I possibly could. I went on Tinder, not to find myself a boy to hook up with but rather for a tour guide, and soon I had myself a Sorbonne-going Parisian boy to whisk me around the city on his vespa to every classic site, zipping under the Eiffel Tower and to the hole-in-the-wall gems kept secret by the locals. And at the end of the day, he dropped me off at my hotel with a kiss on the cheek, wishing me a good conclusion to my Euro adventure. At one point Sonia and I paid a visit to Vienna, guided by my friend Nils. In the dead of night, we ventured into a local fair where I excitedly ran to a towering pendulum ride, being the adrenaline junkie I am. At the top, with the hot summer air whizzing past me and sparks of rain hitting my face, I had literally never been happier.
And while camping out in the desert during a hike to Petra, I danced with bedouins swinging swords until the sun rose.
I traveled to Amsterdam to see my friend from years back, and after tripping (literally and figuratively) through the Van Gogh Museum trying to figure out how Van Gogh created that wiggly effect on his paintings, we hid out in the Apple Store afraid of the outside world and genuinely weeping out of happiness at how far away we were from our toxic high school.
When I was much younger, my mom and I visited Turkey, bringing along pool floaties to make our cheap overnight ferries to Greece more comfortable. My first memories were filled with strange men in colorful markets making passes at my mom, along with some accusations of her stealing a small blonde child (herself easily passing for Middle Eastern). “Do you want a donut?” someone once asked us, a temptation no small child could ever resist. I begged my extremely resistant mother to follow him, willing to go anywhere for a free sweet. When we finally got there, I remember seeing the panic in my vegetarian mom’s eyes as we realized that he meant donar, not donut, nearly running away at the sight. There were a lot more memories from that trip that are placed at the back of my mind, including my mom taking us from hotel to hotel in order to escape from skeevy men, serving as a warning to my future self to stay aware, “woke” and careful.
Fast forward maybe 8 years to the era of college visits, when I got flown to the UAE to visit NYU Abu Dhabi. Establishing a little group on my first night, we would stay up literally all night, surviving off caffeine pills and waiting until the morning when the coffee machines would start working again. Trapped in our little dorm buildings covered with cameras in order to regulate the gender specific floors, we discovered a secret room in the lobby where we would hide out from the disapproving supervisors, our jokes growing more and more hilarious as our sleep deprivation increased. From taking mini-naps during the info-sessions to getting scolding for posing for pictures in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in my burqa, from sand surfing during a feast made by bedouins to riding on camels through the desert, it was a complete blur. I remember everyone putting on beautiful dresses and suits for the final ceremony, a huge banquet dinner, and falling asleep while standing up while everyone was dancing and learning to sing a traditional song.
On a visit to Yale-NUS a year later, I pulled the same stunt, not sleeping for the entire school visit. Having already decided to attend a different program for university, I wanted to make the most of my time, finding a student in a similar situation and exploring Singapore together instead of sitting through the tedious organized sessions. Hiding throughout the campus to avoid supervisors, we walked 20 miles a day (partially due to being stranded downtown after the metro shut down), sneaking into huge malls after closing horus through construction sites and staying there until they opened again. Chinatown at 3am, truth or dare on rooftops, singing in the Butteries, messily dancing in Clarke Quay, and buying way too many Chomsky books at the beautifully oversized bookstores: with no sleep to break up the days, Singapore will similarly stuck in my mind as a glorious stream of adventures that could have easily all been a dream.
Recently my dad visited my school in the south of France, whisking my friends away on a road trip through France to Andorra for my birthday. The entire car hungover, we magically maneuvered through the mountains during a blizzard, thinking that at any moment we would skid off the side into the abyss below.
I am extremely lucky to have experienced the things I have, being provided with immense privilege in being able to go to all these far away places. I often find myself defensive of my adventures, why I travel so often and where I choose to go, creating internal dialogues full of self-criticism and reassuring explanations. And often even more important than the places I visit are the people I travel with, and it’s a sad thing in my life that I haven’t traveled with many people I’d like to, such as my grandmother before she passed away or my best friend Vy. But no matter what, I’m fantastically appreciative for the experiences I have had; whether negative or positive, they’ve left an impact on me and changed the way I look at the world; ushering me into new ways of thinking and being and ways that i impact my environment as much as it impacts me.