To travel is to learn.

Below is an essay I wrote shortly after I returned from my travels. It will be published in the upcoming issue of a Vanderbilt magazine. I am continuing to sort through this experience and come to understand the fullness of its revolution.

Over the past year, there were times when I would close my eyes and wish that I were walking across Peabody lawn, with the crisp fall air, the crunch of leaves, and the striking yet welcoming façade of the Wyatt Rotunda. But just for a moment. The fleeting allure of familiarity – of “home” – could not compete with the fruit of the unexplored. My time at Vanderbilt had ended, and I was on a new adventure: the Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship.

In August 2012, I began my journey as a Keegan Fellow with the goal of studying the role of transportation around the world, particularly through a lens of quality of life and equity of access. I had not realized transportation’s holistic effects – on physical and mental health, social equity, public access, energy security, public space, quality of life, accommodation of rising urban populations – until I studied abroad as a junior in Copenhagen, a city renowned for cycling networks and integrated public transit. That experience made me want to understand the daily challenges presented by transportation and how they could be addressed by innovation to more fully engage in and encourage a global discussion. I knew I could do this best through personal experience.

And now – after 373 days, 24 countries, five continents, 176 sleeping surfaces, and hundreds of hours, thousands of miles, of travel – my journey has come to an end.

In some ways, this entire year seems to have happened in a blink, a dream. The world to which I returned is seemingly unchanged, my memories surreal. I’ve had none of the familiar indicators of passing time, but if I measure time in my own growth and understanding, surely years have passed. This one year brought me from the safe confines of undergraduate life into the frenzy and beauty of the nomadic; from a class schedule to a schedule of constant improvisation; from book learning in the library to marinating in knowledge and culture. To travel is to learn. Incessantly. Unceasingly. Every day is new. Every day requires you to adapt; to figure out where you are, where you need to go, and how you need to get there.

Travel gives you a wider lens of understanding. You realize you have come to see life in a new way, but you can’t really point to when this happened. Because you are constantly growing.

And you can never turn back.
And this is great.

The world is far more than a postcard—far more frustrating and far more enchanting. There are so many things that I could not truly understand without this immersion. I saw things with my own eyes; I tasted them on my lips; I felt them with my hands and in my heart.

I would not truly understand transportation in Cape Town until I understood the lasting influences of apartheid, particularly from my host’s stories and experiences as a prominent member of the Black Sash. Until I saw the regional distribution of townships—so purposely placed outside the city and away from jobs, health care, education and other resources. Until I experienced the wild rides of the minibus taxis, swerving in and out of traffic, racing to pick up and squeeze in as many passengers as possible in their outdated, probably-shouldn’t-­be-on-­the-­road vehicles.

I would not truly understand the daily costs of breathing the polluted air, or why people wear face masks, in Asian megacities like Mumbai, New Dehli, Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila and Beijing until I experienced breathing this air every day during commutes. Until I felt it settle in my throat and lungs. Until I saw the residue it left on my clothes. Until I was able to stare directly at the sun due to the shielding power of smog.

I would not truly understand the significance of Medellin’s transportation innovations – particularly its use of cable cars to service the underdeveloped barrios stretching up the hills of this valley city in Colombia – until I saw the transformed neighborhoods. Until I rode them with the people who used them every day. Until I heard the pride in their voices as they described what their city accomplished amidst a past riddled with violence.

And, more important than anything, I came to better understand people. For what is travel but the opportunity to implant yourself into another life – to leave behind everything and come to understand another way of being.

I will never forget wandering the lazy inlets of the Mekong Delta on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, with my thoughts drifting to its bloody history when I heard voices calling. I turned to meet them. Nothing could have been more of a contrast to my 1968 imaginings than the eager and smiling faces unexpectedly welcoming my companions and me into their modest home. We cooked together, ate together, and celebrated the New Year. We didn’t speak Vietnamese, and they didn’t speak English. But a smile goes a long way.

I will never forget the generosity of Mustafa and Ramazan at their home in Turkey. Though Mustafa had spent a few months in the United States, Ramazan had never met an American. Over our freshly caught fish and homegrown vegetables, Mustafa translated as he questioned me about past and present U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. I felt the weight of my words, far greater than anything I had ever written in an essay or spoken in a class debate, for they were determining a man’s perception of a nation. I realized that I had become an ambassador by default.

I will never forget the strong, protective hand grabbing my arm, rescuing me from a sea of piranha taxi drivers pulling in every direction, eager to take advantage of an out-­‐of-­‐place mzungu in the middle of the night in Tanzania. The Malawian woman whisked me away to safety, cursing the taxis and cursing our driver for forcing me off the bus. In that moment, at the end of a cross-­‐continent overland journey full of mishaps, I saw the truth of my travels: I would only succeed so long as the world carried me.

Despite traveling solo, I was by no means alone. Strangers became friends. They taught me, and I taught them. I was fully immersed in the transcendental power of relationship, the ability to connect beyond culture, beyond language, and beyond preconceptions.

And I learned that is the point of everything: To touch the world and to embrace humanity. Fully, resolutely, and without reservation.

Having only returned from my travels days ago, I am still – and will be for some time – sorting through my experiences and emotions. Even in this raw state of reflection, I am profoundly aware of a transformation, one that has burned through me with both the staccato bursts of fireworks and the soft, steady glow of an oil lamp. While the details and ultimate ramifications are still blurred, this year has undeniably altered, shaped and fortified my future.

In the midst of rumination, what I can say for sure is this:

the world is beautiful;
people are astounding;
my soul is enriched.

And that’s more than enough for now.

A [Brief] Return to the US of A

The only thing distracting me from the growing knot in my stomach was the overwhelming weight of exhaustion. In just a few days, I had traveled across the entirety of China by way of rail and road. On top of that, the tremendous allure of YunNan prevented me from allowing more than one day of rest – which I filled with a 9-mile hike – before boarding a plane crossing [part of] the Pacific. Good decision? Probably not. Worth it? Of Course.

Any normal person under these conditions would fall asleep immediately upon finding his or her assigned seat on the aircraft. In this way (and I suppose many others), I am not normal. Give me the bumpiest bus ride, and I will sleep; but put me on a plane, and my body refuses to shut down. While the former has ultimately been more useful as bus rides far outnumbered flights, the latter has caused much suffering on those select airborne journeys. My flight from Hong Kong to Honolulu was no different. Add my growing anxiety as we neared American soil, and you have quite the uncomfortable traveler.

I know I sound ridiculous right now. Dreading a landing in Hawaii? Who would ever?! But indeed, that was the state of my consciousness. This so-called paradise seemed to be racing towards me on the horizon, and I wanted to kick up my heels and run the other way. Lucky for me, this is frowned upon on an airplane, for great things were waiting on the runway.

In fact, I would be reuniting with my sister at the home of our family friends in Oahu – a wonderful chance to be with family and pseudo-family after such a foreign experience. And I was looking forward to it. But I was also afraid: afraid to leave Asia after six months immersion, afraid to return to American culture after nine plus months away, and afraid to begin a final chapter of my travels.

In the end, I slept through most of the feared transition. Almost immediately upon arrival at the airport, I could feel my body beginning to shut down. I finally succumbed to the wear and tear of travel – particularly over the past couple of weeks – made manifest in a chest cold. My first few days in Hawaii were mostly spent expending as little energy as possible. Soon enough, I recovered and was able to explore the island with my sister for some much needed catch-up time. Nine months is a long time apart, and I am so happy for the time we had together.

But there was still some shock to overcome and some adjustments to be made. Though Hawaii is pleasantly influenced by many Asian cultures, a big ole hunk of America remains. Grocery stores and prices were overwhelming; English was most exciting. I may have been overly friendly to strangers – it was just too dang exciting to be able to communicate again. For the not-so-exciting transitions, at least I was in “paradise.”

And at least I still have Colombia.

When China sealed my heart.

Never have I seen anything more beautiful.

The un-summited mountains rose out of the shadows, hinting at the fullness of their unfathomable heights. The morning sun kissed their virgin peaks, and the glaciers began to glisten. The full moon lingered above, stalling its descent, as if frozen by the newly revealed glory. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, pinching myself unbelievingly – even after three days of familiarity – at the breathtaking backdrop of the Meili Snow Mountains.

This mountain range serves as the border between Tibet and the Yunnan province of China. While I had fully intended to touch on the boundaries of this Chinese province – one prominently recognized by almost any backpacker entering the country for its natural beauty, [relatively] laid-back vibe, and introduction to minority cultures – I had never imagined to travel all the way across it. The impulsive decisions to go one city farther, and then one city farther, made the rewarding hikes, vistas and encounters all the sweeter.

It started in Kunming, the lovely and vibrant capital of the province. I instinctively knew I had entered a province more apt to win my favor. I immediately met fellow travelers – something that had previously been quite a rarity in China – and they began to seduce me with tales of their travels in Yunnan. As much as I enjoyed the city, known in China as the City of Eternal Spring, I was so enticed by the cities to come that I left the next day on a 7-hour bus ride for Dali, one of the most popular spots for solo travelers in China.

With mountains, a gorgeous lake, historic old town, and – most importantly – an utterly relaxing backpacker enclave, Dali was a quick favorite. I reveled in the abundant opportunities to meet fellow travelers, the opportunity for effective verbal communication – a welcome break from my everlasting game of charades. It was here that I met Magdalena, a Swiss solo adventurer who would become my travel buddy over the next couple of weeks.

After a few days in Dali, I headed to Lijiang – a city with a once-beautiful old town that has now been disgustingly overhauled by the worst of Chinese tourism – for the purpose of connecting to the Tiger Leaping Gorge two-day hike, which had been my primary incentive for coming to this region. I arrived in Lijiang at sunset… and was immediately ready to leave, utterly overwhelmed by the hoards of Chinese tourists. That night, Magdalena and I joined with six others travelers to arrange transport to the start of the hike for the next morning.

Conditions for the hike could not have been more perfect – just enough clouds in the sky to limit the heat of the sun, without dampening the effect of the snow peaks looming over the gorge on either side. Magdalena and I quickly outpaced the other travelers, and we found ourselves far ahead. With the exceptions of the few groups of Chinese tourists we overtook, who have a strange affinity for blaring Gangnam Style and other ridiculous “hits” while hiking, it was utterly serene, utterly awe-inspiring. The hike is most enjoyed by spending a night on the trail. We stayed at the Halfway House, where paying a few dollars for bed gets you a million dollar view from the rooftop terrace (as well as from the open air squat “toilets”).

It was here that Magdalena and I made our first “just one city farther” decision. After the hike, you can go back to Lijiang or continue to Shangri-La, a city renamed after the fictitious oasis described in the British novel Lost Horizon, which was supposedly inspired by this region. At the end of the hike, we hitched a ride in an incredibly rickety van pasted with a large American bald eagle to get to the main road. We most certainly inhaled various toxic fumes but were just happy the engine lived long enough to get us to there. From the main road, we hailed a minibus headed for Shangri-La.

The geography changed on the journey. We gained altitude, and things became drier. I watched the transition unfold through my window until the bumps of the bus lulled me to sleep. When I woke, we had arrived in the quiet Shangri-La – a place that provides one of the most authentic glimpses into Tibetan culture outside of Tibet, particularly with the large Songzanlin Monastery located just outside the city.

View from Songzanlin Monastery.

Magdalena and I both immediately liked the slow pace of the city – and the low number of tourists. After wandering the old town, we spent hours at the monastery, just observing the monks, reflecting, and soaking in views of the countryside. Gorgeous low mountains surrounded us, but we had both expected a bit more height based on the elevation of the region. And I think this was when we began to want more of this region. That night, we met five Israeli travelers who had just experienced the “more” we were after: Deqin.

Deqin is the last city/town accessible by bus before the Tibetan border, and it is there, as well as the journey there, that you can see the majestic monsters, the towering mountains reaching up to 6,740 m (22,100 feet). One flip through their photos, and I was sold, regardless of the fact that I was running out of time in China – and about as far away as I could be from my flight out of Hong Kong. These travelers had not only been to Deqin, but they had done the additional hike to Yubeng – a tiny Tibetan village at the foot of the mountains, accessible only by foot.

While intending to only go as far as Deqin, we were once again lured forward, and we found ourselves hiking to Yubeng with two young Italian guys we met on the bus. And boy was it worth it.

The mountains were untouched; the tiny village was perfectly picturesque; and the Tibetan culture was utterly fascinating. We spent a day hiking in, a day on hikes around the village, and a day hiking back. We marveled locals with our blonde hair, and we had entire conversations without speaking the same language. We hiked to a glacier and to a one-monk monastery. We reached 4,300 meters, my highest elevation as of yet, all in my Chaco sandals. It was wondrous. And I didn’t want to leave. Ever. But I had to. I had to start journeying towards Hong Kong. Two nights was definitely not enough, but it’s two more than nothing. And that’s great.

Back in Deqin, after the four-hike from the village, we failed to arrange same-day transport to Shangri-La as we had hoped. This would make the journey to Hong Kong all the more arduous for me, but this became irrelevant. For the next morning, Mother Nature would put on a show, in all her glory, and we would swear it was just for us.

A perfect sunrise
to end a perfect weekend
in perfect mountain bliss.

[Nevermind that two seconds later I nearly walked off a two-story drop, managing to peel my eyes from the mountains, at the last second, with one foot hovering over open air. FYI construction sites are not well marked in China.]

Adapting.

China can be rough. It can be dirty, polluted, and oh-so-crowded. While these were certainly not new obstacles for me after spending time in other megacities, they seemed to suddenly weigh heavier. Particularly in Beijing.

My first week in China turned out to be a most comfortable introduction. After spending day one in a hostel, I was upgraded to five-star accommodation, courtesy of the lovely Jas and Shiba and their adorable son Ayaan. A UK-based family temporarily uprooted to China, they decided to make the most of their adventurous years abroad, particularly in choice of residence: the 40th floor, glass-walled apartment overlooks the Huangpu River and the entirety of west Shanghai. The guest room, which became my room, has the same view. Absolutely stunning, completely surreal.

From this luxurious home base, I explored Shanghai. While more a piece of “real China” than Hong Kong, it simultaneously embodies an international edge due to its many expats, making navigation far easier than other Chinese cities. I found the recent urban development and beautification – wonderfully displayed in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition (as well as in real life) – over the past decade to be especially impressive. China can certainly get things done.

This sentiment was made even clearer on my next stop, Hangzhou, just a few hours away by train. The city surrounds a beautiful lake enclosed by gorgeous Chinese gardens, making it a lovely place for strolling and cycling, particularly as Hangzhou maintains the largest bike share in the world with 66,500 bikes as of January 2013. New York’s newly opened Citi Bike, now the largest bike share in the US, has 6,000 bicycles. I had the opportunity to meet with one of the primary international advisors on, as well as the initiator of, the project, which was started in 2008.

After presenting the idea to the Chinese government, Bradley only had to wait a few days for approval. Once the “yes” was made, things moved quickly – a benefit of a Communist government – and the program was ready for use ahead of schedule (whereas Citi Bike opened after a year of delays). China now operates bike share systems in 19 cities, something I was quite thankful for during my time in the country: a glorious return to the pleasures of transit by cycling.

From Hangzhou, I made the amazingly quick (relative to distance) trip to Beijing at 300 km per hour (186 mph), my one splurge on China’s high-speed rail. I felt it “necessary” to try, if just for comparison. The train brought me safely and speedily to the country’s capital just in time for Chinese Labor Day – a grievous mistake.

The Chinese do not have very many national holidays, giving few opportunities for travel. Chinese Labor Day is one of those few times. “Where better to spend this three-day vacation than the Beijing?” said apparently everyone. The city was PACKED. Adding a ridiculously large influx of tourists when the local population is already 20.7 million does not make for fun sightseeing.

On top of the crowds, I had to adjust to the high level of pollution and long commutes. I was CouchSurfing quite far outside of the city center, which meant taking one of the subway lines to its terminus followed by a bus – almost two hours time for most of my destinations. Add smog so thick you can stare right at the sun and maybe you can understand why I was not Beijing’s number one fan. But man, is transportation cheap! The incredibly robust subway network costs only CNY2 (about $0.30) for any length of ride – a great example of equitable transit.

This aside, Beijing was draining. My host was not what I expected, and I felt isolated. Luckily, my third day brought a most welcome presence – two more travelers at the apartment.

Tobi and Sarah were (and still are) in the midst of a most exciting year, particularly for medical students. As opposed to following the traditional path of education, they opted to complete their final year of internships in different hospitals around the world. They were en route from their previous internship in New Zealand to their final internship in Germany, stopping in the Pacific islands, South Korea, and now China along the way. Mid-August will bring them back home – a year from when they started – making our travel windows only one week different.

I spent the remainder of my time in Beijing exploring with Tobi and Sarah, completing changing my view of the city. What a gift to be with two other people at exactly the same place in a year of travel! – to share stories, excitements, worries, and laughs. While the specifics have of course been different, our overall experiences are utterly relatable, yet completely foreign to most of the world. For this, I am most grateful.

After Tobi and Sarah left for a plane to Europe, I too said good-bye to Beijing – and good-bye to the respiratory side effects of pollution. I boarded a train for the 24-hour journey to Zhangjiajie National Park, the inspiration for Avatar’s hanging mountains. Not only would this provide a much needed breath of fresh air, but the park is conveniently located in same province (Hunan) as Zhuzhou, the temporary home to fellow Vanderbilt alum Jacob and the other English teachers I traveled with in mainland Southeast Asia.

A wonderful reunion in Zhuzhou, unbelievable scenery at Zhangjiajie, and the deliciously spicy food of the province made Hunan an easy win. It proved a perfect antidote to Beijing’s hardships and a wonderful resting place before beginning a spectacularly arduous journey through my most anticipated province in China: Yunnan.

Oh my, what a place!

Come Sail Away [to china]

As the days in Japan ticked by quickly, I found myself wary of the next step. Soon, I would leave the comforts of traveling with a parent, the comforts of the developed world, and dive into what had been built up as the biggest challenge of the year… Six weeks in a country where I would be incapable of even the most basic communication. Six weeks behind the “Great Firewall.” Six weeks in the People’s Republic of China.

After sending my mother on her way home, I stayed in Japan another week for the opportunity to meet with the Institute of Global Environment Strategies headquartered outside of Tokyo. This also provided the chance for my first “travel buddy” reunion. In the Philippines, I had spent some days exploring with a young Russian couple, Eugene and Eugenia. Eugene – in addition to being an active member of the Couch Surfing community – is completing his PhD in Tokyo. They opened their home to me, and we reminisced our shared adventures only a few weeks earlier – a most valuable reminder that scattered friends can, in fact, come together again.

After a couple days of sweet story-telling, I said good-bye to the Russians (once again) and went to spend my last two nights in Japan’s largest port city: Osaka. From here I would depart to China, for my journey was not by airplane. Rather, I would travel by ship – for 48 hours. What was chosen for both its economic value and adventurous allure ultimately became prized for its (relative) luxury, opportunity for rest, and beautiful views.

On the Shanghai International Ferry, there are two sub-classes within the “economy” class (obviously the class for me) – Economy A and Economy B. Economy B was bunk bed/dorm style, and Economy B was tatami style – one large room with 16 mats on the floor – and $20 cheaper. I first opted for the cheaper tatami style, but after my mom delivered a few birthday checks from back home, I upgraded to Economy A (still cheaper than a plane ticket) for the chance to sleep in a bed, albeit still sharing a room. Upon boarding the ship, in the wake of creating a stir of commotion and ogling eyes as a solo “blonde”-haired female traveler, I was escorted to my room.

This room, I soon discovered, was meant for me and only me. It also included access to the “upper class only” Japanese onsen (essentially a fabulous hot tub) with views overlooking the ocean. Best. Upgrade. Ever. As a perpetually under-slept traveler, I took full advantage of literally having nothing to do and slept fully and deeply for the first time in months. It was glorious.

The first day of travel cut through the southern Japanese islands, allowing gorgeous views of lush, volcanic mountains. That night, we hit open ocean. The second day brought stormy seas, changing every walk down the hall into a zigzagging trail. The rocking merely lured me to an afternoon nap. The third day brought calm waters once again, and these waters brought us to port – the end of a wondrous passage, my favorite of all border crossings.

I contemplated hiding out in my cabin to get a few more days’ rest… but only for a second. The allure of the strange and exciting culture awaiting was strong and enticing. I was also hungry. Thus, I gathered my things and disembarked. After a quick border patrol check of my not-so-quickly-acquired visa, I found myself in China. Fresh Off the Boat.

I felt ready, rested and ready for all the new challenges – language, culture, communism. My confidence soared as I stepped through the doors and into the city… And then I realized, I didn’t know where I was going.

Well, to be fair, I knew where I was going, I just didn’t know how to get there. Or how to communicate where I wanted to go. I had been given directions to my place of rest by way of metro. Easy enough. Only one problem: the metro does not go to the International Ferry Station. Not the most welcoming revelation upon arrival, particularly when you have no shared vocabulary.

In the end, I was able to track down someone with full command of the English language: Siri. A young Chinese girl and I communicated through her iPhone – the first of many wordless conversations. Once she understood my need to get to the metro, she took it upon herself to walk me to the bus stop, escort me onto the bus, and tell the driver my stop. Soon enough, I was off the bus and on the metro, off the metro and on the street, off the street and into my room.

First test passed.

Mountain Passes and Japanese Luxury

The snow-capped peaks awe at every turn, providing my first true glimpse of “winter” this year. I have abandoned my book in lieu of the National Geographic special unfolding out the window. My lid-less coffee, resting on the tray table in front of me, barely ripples as we tunnel through the Japanese Alps. Lounging in my plush, reclined and oh-so-padded seat, I begin to think of my last mountain journey – the first leg of the trip back to Manila from Sagada – only one week ago yet separated by decades of development.

Even before we got all the way to the jeepney, it became clear that our entire troupe would not fit. Well, at least not on the inside. The benches and aisle were already packed, maybe room enough for one or two. Rather than wait for the next jeepney, to arrive at an undetermined time, I chucked my bag up and followed the other newly arrived passengers… to the ladder. Time to truly understand local transportation to the fullest.

Paulo (my Portuguese-German friend) and I shared the comfort of a spare tire latched to the roof for a seat of sorts. I clasped my hand around the metal exoskeleton of the jeep as it lurched to a start. Soon my feet searched holds as the tumultuous mountain curves proved more than one handhold could manage. And then it started to rain.

The driver swerved to the side of the gravel road; my body jolted with the sudden stop. He jumped out of the jeepney and tossed up a tarp. The other ten or so Filipinos on top quickly responded to this apparently normal procedure by covering themselves and the bags. As Paulo and I sat in the very front, we were tasked with holding it down. In a matter of seconds, the engine had burst back to life. As we gained speed, the tarp became taut in the wind. Handholds were abandoned in the effort to keep it from flying away. I wondered if Paulo and I would get a free paragliding lesson; our fellow rooftop passengers laughed (lightheartedly) at our struggles. But soon the rain subsided, we arrived at our destination, and we dismounted with a smile.

There is no denying it: Japan has been a big ole gulp of luxury. And I have savored each and every swallow, letting it cleanse from the inside out. I had forgotten what it was like to end the day without a layer of grime – of dust and soot and smog – coating my body. I had forgotten what it was like to travel between cities feeling certain there will be no accident [and to end a journey without sore muscles and a shortened spine]. I had forgotten what it was like to walk down the street on a sidewalk without being hassled to buy or to give.

Now, instead of dirt and sore muscles I have Japanese onsens; instead of relentless touts I have hosts bowing with endless courtesy; instead of rooftop jeepney rides I have Shinkansen bullet trains and heated subway seats. And as if this was not enough to burgeon my quality of life, my doting mother has joined me.

Let me tell you, if you want to really feel the love, reunite with a parent after traveling alone across the world.

It’s a wonderful thing.

On the Road

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? –it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

–Jack Kerouac, On the Road

I can’t help but laugh as I turn the page to this line. I’m on the overnight bus from Sagada Mountain Region back to Manila, my too-long-legs awkwardly jutting out into the aisle. I have just said good-bye to yet more incredible people, and it is as if Jack Kerouac has taken the words right off my heart. Just trade the American plains for the Cordillera Mountains.

For the past five days, I have been adventuring in the mountains, caves, waterfalls and rice terraces of Northern Luzon. I rejoiced in the cleansing fresh air, the adrenaline-pumping spelunking, and the breathtaking beauty; my reason now rejoices in injury-free survival. [Note: adventure activities do not have safety standards in the developing world]. Though any trip involving a four-hour caving adventure that necessitates free climbing and swimming through underground channels would automatically win my affection, this week was especially magnificent due to the company. Brought together by our hostel in Manila, we were six in all – two Russians, one Argentinian, one Norwegian, one Portuguese-German, and one American (me); or, one couple and four solo travelers.

The backpacker enclave is such that there is always someone interesting to meet. At some level, you already have a common interest: love of travel. This connecting thread, mixed with a mutual desire to get to know fellow travelers, allows for easy friendships. Though short – maybe only a few days or simply an afternoon – these relationships are rich and not easily forgotten. They allow you to learn and experience not only the culture of your destination country but also that of your travel buddy. Every nationality adds an additional dimension to a conversation, increasing its depth (and your own understanding) exponentially. And more importantly, they understand you in a way that only another backpacker can – how this experience of long-term travel (popularly defined as more than two months) changes you to the core.

Our group in the Philippines was just this: beautifully diverse yet strung together by our united spirits and conjoint wanderlust. But as quickly as we came together, so we must break apart. Our itineraries now diverge, and my time in the Philippines comes to a close.

I spent my first week (plus some) here exploring the capital. Another city scorned by the average backpacker, Manila is not one to amaze at first glance. Yet taken in its history – ravished by every manmade and natural disaster possible – the city and its people will astound you. The ‘Pearl of the Orient’ may be snarled with traffic, clogged with pollution and riddled by poverty, but look for the key to its resilience, its ability to thrive as an Asian metropolis, and you find its jewel: the Filipino people. Through every hardship, every overstepping imperial power, every corrupt politician, they persevere with an unmatched zest for life. Wander the streets for merely seconds and you will be greeted by a smile sure to win your heart.

I admit: I may be biased. For half my life, I have considered a Filipino American family to be my second family. I started to babysit their children when I was only 12 years old. At the time, Annalise was six, John Harry three, and Lizzie unborn. Now they are 17, 14, and 9, respectively, and their family has become my extended family. I see their reflection, the reflection of my pseudo siblings, all over the streets of Manila. The kids here don’t even have to smile – they already have my heart. Pair this predisposition with my transportation interests, and you will begin to understand my infatuation with the city.

As the home of the Asian Development Bank and its various spinoff organizations (e.g. Clean Air Asia), Manila benefits from a concentration of development, including transportation, policy experts (as well as accessible capital). A perfect place to learn more about projects and goals in the Philippines and across Asia, a perfect place for me. I floated, in the most professional of ecstasies, through meetings with people in the crux of projects and research I hope to someday emulate. It was a week of days where I felt like I was in exactly the right place; that nothing could be more perfect, more full of possibility, than the present. And it made life wonderful.

Tomorrow, I fly to Tokyo. Aside from six days in Singapore, I have spent the last six and a half months in developing countries. Japan will be a whole new world, one that – to my own disbelief – I will first explore with my mother. This has been the longest period in my life in which I have not seen her. The prospect of spending time with her erases my melancholic thoughts as I close another chapter, Southeast Asia, and leave more friends on the horizon. So it goes. A new horizon waits.

Onto ‘the next crazy venture beneath the skies’!


The Big Durian

Jakarta. Backpackers warn you to get out as soon as possible, or better yet, avoid it all together. Traffic clogs the streets; smog fills your lungs; honking horns drive you mad. Cautionary flags that send the average traveler sprinting towards Bali, these side effects of a sprawling metropolis in the developing world are the very reasons I have come to Indonesia. For me, the “Big Durian,” the ignored capital of a much-traveled country, is more than a transit destination. While I will take advantage of its proximity to a few of Indonesia’s many volcanoes (and reconnect to my geological roots in igneous petrology), I will devote the majority of my time to exploring, and attempting to understand, challenges to the daily commuter in Jakarta.

Upon arrival, I find myself quickly thrust into Jakarta’s transportation classroom: three hours of traffic on a bus from the airport, followed by a zigzagging motorcycle taxi, to get to my host’s office in the middle of the afternoon. I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome by Zulfa, my host found via CouchSurfing.org, when I finally arrive. Another CouchSurfer, Jerome, who has been traveling the world for over two years, will soon join us.

My week in Jakarta sends me back a few steps in development. I am again taking bucket showers with cold water and traversing slums on my daily commute. Pair these next to the rising shopping malls – filled with designer store after designer store – and you begin to understand the dichotomy of the city. Classes diverging in opposite directions create an expansive gap, seemingly impossible to bridge. This gap is especially evident in modes of transportation. The personal car (SUV even better) is highly coveted and immediately purchased by those with available cash. Commuter rail and buses overflow with everyone else: Jakarta is the largest city in the world without any rail rapid transit.

Talks of building a metro have gone on for a couple decades now, yet no construction has begun. However, Jakarta has followed in the footsteps of Latin America by introducing bus rapid transit (BRT). BRT is defined as “a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective urban mobility through the provision of segregated right-of-way infrastructure, rapid and frequent operations, and excellence in marketing and operations” (Institute for Transport and Development Policy). But even with this, there are simply too many people for the current infrastructure and routes.

Each day in Jakarta begins by Jerome and me piling on the back of Zulfa’s motorbike. We ride about half an hour to get to the train station, where we then wait for a train with enough space for us to squeeze. After dropping Zulfa at the station closest to her work, we stay on a couple more stops and transfer trains to get closer to the city center. Typically, at least two hours has elapsed between the time we leave the house and the time we exit the train. During the day, we walk and use TransJakarta, the BRT system. In the evening, we meet Zulfa close to her work, have dinner, and stay in the city until later at night when the trains will have more space. Rush hour would double the already long commute. By the time we reach Zulfa’s house again, we collapse into bed, exhausted from the day’s activities. I cannot imagine the toll from taking such a commute each and every day.

On our last night together in the city, Zulfa, Jerome and I explore Central Jakarta, particularly the Monas National Monument and the surrounding nightlife at Lapangan Merdeka, the world’s largest city square. People are already flooding to the park when we arrive; vendors are selling everything from food and drinks to t-shirts and handicrafts. The public space allows for a free Saturday outing for families, couples and singles alike. Adjacent to the park is Istiqal Mosque, the national mosque of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. We make a quick detour to visit.

For practicing Muslims, Salah (formal, obligatory worship) is prayed five times a day at periods measured according to the movement of the sun, which are dawn to sunrise (Fajr), noon (Zuhr), afternoon (Asr), after sunset until dusk (Maghrib), and nightfall (Isha). While these prayers can be completed wherever you are at that time of day – a bedroom, an office, prayer rooms at the mall, etc. – some Muslims choose to pray daily at a mosque. As Zulfa and I are sharing a bed this week, I have become very aware of the devotion, and sacrifice, required everyday for Salah (especially for Fajr).

In the mosque, Zulfa accompanies Jerome and me to the second floor balcony overlooking the main prayer hall, which serves as a viewing deck of sorts for visitors outside the faith. As she explains the five pillars of Islam and the respective architectural reflection in Istiqal, the mosque begins to fill: the time for sunset prayer is approaching. Zulfa quietly excuses herself and joins those gathering on the main prayer floor. Jerome and I watch from above.

After prayers, Zulfa rejoins our threesome. We are given a short tour before exiting Southeast Asia’s largest mosque. Once outside, we cross the street and enter Indonesia’s only Gothic Catholic cathedral. We have arrived just in time for the Vigil Mass. As we enter the church, Zulfa and I reverse roles: time for me to be the teacher. We slip into the last pew, and I spend the remainder of the Mass whispering explanations to Zulfa. This is her first time inside a Catholic church, her first time to attend a Christian service. In just a couple hours, we have been able to experience and exchange the cornerstone practices of our faiths.

To share, and to learn: this is the essence of CouchSurfing, the essence of travel.
This is my everyday.

Tet in the Mekong Delta

I am thoroughly convinced we will fall. I look down at the murky waters to my left and to my right, and then I grip the back handle tighter. I would like to believe that two months in Asia has made me a competent motorbike passenger, but my trust wavers. My apprehension – or rather prediction that I will soon be swimming – stems from a few unique conditions: I’m carrying two backpacks; we are going over a three-foot wide bridge without railings; and the Vietnamese driver is avidly texting God-knows-who (LET’S HOPE IT IS SOMEONE IMPORTANT, MAYBE THE PRESIDENT).

Our pace slows as we reach the peak of the bridge; he revs the engine. The sudden burst of speed brings us close to the edge; he drops his hand holding the phone just in time to straighten the handlebars. We survive the bridge, and he is able to finish typing his message as we navigate the remaining dirt paths leading to the guesthouse. With a newfound trust in his ability to text and drive, I am able to tear my eyes from his phone and soak in the new surroundings: the Mekong Delta.

For the past couple weeks, I have been able to align my travels with those of my friend Jacob, a Vanderbilt alumnus currently teaching English in China, and a few of his fellow teachers. After meeting in Bangkok, we traveled overland through Thailand and Cambodia. Today, we crossed into Vietnam, arriving first in Ho Chi Minh City by bus.

Even though we only spent a few hours there before catching another bus to Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta, we left with a very clear first impression: motorbikes. Droves of bikes zoomed in and around the few cars on the road, easily dominating transportation around the city. The bikes seemed to outnumber cars more than ten to one – a much clearer majority than in Thailand, Cambodia or India, particularly for a large city. After this glimpse of transportation preference, I should not have been surprised when the owners of the guesthouse collected Brian, Jacob, and me from the ferry on motorcycles.

Our night in the Delta is quiet and delicious – the guesthouse is somewhat appropriately labeled as a homestay and includes a most delightful dinner cooked by the women in the family. When we can eat no more, we lounge on hammocks, peering out into the quiet shadows of this steamy jungle, this ‘biological treasure trove’ pleading to be explored in the morning. After a long day of bus travel and border crossings, we sleep soundly in the cradle of village life.

In the morning, I am pulled out of bed by the wafting aroma of baguettes and Vietnamese coffee – both rare in Asia but wonderfully commonplace (and delicious) here courtesy of French imperialism. Our breakfast in crowned by candied coconut and other sweets, as today is the start of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Unfortunately, this also means that locals will be inside with their families instead of at the usual floating market we had anticipated. We shake off our disappointment and decide to explore the region by foot.

As we wander through the delta, following the meandering waters, my thoughts drift to my father. I have willingly and enthusiastically traveled to the country that he did everything to avoid. A trip to Vietnam was his worst nightmare at my age. Had he not been successful, he might have traversed these same paths (and, given the statistics, I might not have been born). I carry a camera over my shoulder; he would have carried a gun. I am greeted by smiles; he would have received bullets.

I find myself drifting to the past, to this very town on this very day 45 years ago. Villagers and Southern forces had found respite in the Lunar New Year holiday, believing there to be a ceasefire across the nation. The ceasefire proved the perfect ruse for coordinated surprise attacks by the Vietcong in over 100 Vietnamese towns and cities – a campaign collectively known as the Tet Offensive. It proved a tipping point in the American psyche, shocking both the government and the public, which had been led to believe the Communist forces incapable of launching such a massive effort.

I am suddenly brought back to the present – Brian and Jacob are calling my name. Consumed in my own thoughts, I had fallen behind them. As I shift back into reality, I realize they are no longer on the dirt path – they have been ushered into a Vietnamese home. I am beckoned to join. Nothing could be more of a contrast to my 1968 imaginings than the eager and smiling faces unexpectedly welcoming us into their home.

We spend the next three hours with this family, being dragged around to see everything in their house, their garden, their neighbor’s house, etc. We are motioned to photograph everything and everyone. We cook with them; we eat with them. We try to communicate with them. We don’t speak Vietnamese; they don’t speak English.

But a smile goes a long way.

Unexpected Reunion

Rose and I before my 6:30 am bus to Thailand (and after realizing we had failed to document our time together.)

The first sip is heaven. I greedily gulp, allowing the cool coconut water to rinse my dust-covered throat. My desert tongue is brought back to life.  I look down; my skin is caked in a thick layer of grime. I turn to Rose and begin to laugh. The first 30 kilometers of our trip has left us as dark as the dirt road beneath our tires. The Khmer woman still holding the coconut-opening machete looks even more confused; her proclivity to smile – shared by most in Cambodia – soon overtakes. We must be quite the sight: two light-haired Americans traveling by bicycle, covered in dust, arms and legs exposed to the sun. Yet, the attention we receive is relatively little compared to our previous travels; the mobility most celebrated.

I left India almost two weeks previously, arriving first in the clean, orderly, and seemingly futuristic Singapore. The curt transition left me wide-eyed. As I absorbed all around me, no one stared at me in return. For the first time in a long time, I was able to melt into city life. My body relaxed. It relaxed from a tenseness of which I had not been conscious – an instinctual state of defensiveness stemming from my relative vulnerability. A woman in a man’s world, I had oft found myself the only female on the streets in India and Africa. In Singapore, I was merely one beating heart in a pulsating metropolis – I found asylum in anonymity.

From Singapore, I had planned to work my way through Malaysia and into Thailand where I would meet a friend from Vanderbilt. While sorting through these plans, I received a most unexpected, and equally exciting, email from a high school friend named Rose. Traveling through a fellowship almost identical to the Keegan, Rose is studying the role of sports for self-confidence in girls, particularly those living in male-dominated societies. After about five months in India, Rose moved to Battambang, Cambodia, her current location, to work with SALT (Sports and Leadership Academy). She had seen my Keegan itinerary, knew I was in the region, and invited me for a visit.

Rose and I hadn’t seen each other since high school. We hadn’t even kept in touch. But the opportunity to reconnect abroad, when we were both in such similar circumstances, was too much to pass. I adjusted my plans and used my travel rewards to book a flight from Malaysia to Cambodia. This would become one of the best impulsive itinerary changes of the year.

In Battambang, I was able to see life in Cambodia apart from tourism; to attend the oldest team’s soccer practice; to share experiences with one of the few people in my same position; and to return to life on a bicycle.

Much of Rose’s time in India had been even more mobility-limited than my own. As such, she had fully taken advantage of the relative freedom in Cambodia for cycling, undertaking multiple overnight bike trips up to 300 km in distance. When I arrived, she proposed we embark on our own. We would bike 90 km to Pailin, spend the night in town, and bike the 90 km back to Battambang the following day.

I knew the trip would be hard for out-of-practice legs, but I couldn’t resist. My muscles itched for the fatigue of limit-pushing exercise; my heart yearned for the exhilaration of self-powered travel.

So we did it.

And yes, the journey was tiring.
But it was beautiful.
And I felt free.