According to a scientific source, a dream is a colorful, vibrant vapor you can store in glass containers until further use is needed. [source: The Big Friendly Giant, author: Roald Dahl]. This is what dreams look like to Dahl, but dreams look different for each of us. A dream could be a perfect spouse for a single person, a 7-11 sandwich for a hungry man, or a proper ceasefire in Aleppo for those wishing to live another day. For me, I had a dream since I was young to travel the world solo. For years I saved up money and would constantly imagine the exciting experiences that lay ahead. But what happens when that “big dream” actually manifests itself into reality? You wait for the spotlight to fall on you. You wait for an applause, and you wait for cheering, and you wait for a tree-sized chocolate bar at the end of the race. But often what you expect is not what happens, and instead, you find yourself squished in a tiny, uncomfortable airplane seat with an overly packed bag, a cup of lukewarm coffee, and the lingering smell of old socks from the row behind you. This is your dream manifested into reality, and I assure you, it can be wonderful if you allow it to be.
I have stories from my 10 months of traveling that could fill 1,000 books, but today I want to share moments that taught me an important value: how to succumb to the subtleties of life. Often, life moves so quickly that we don’t take time to appreciate the finer details. We fall victim to following celebrities and popular trends, so we forget to give value to the unnoticed, hard-working people. We already have an idea of what is “beautiful,” so we don’t make the effort to discover the true beauty in something that appears “just average.” Our ideas of success are found in money, fame, and quantity so we forget that helping just one person to have a better life is actually a victory. I hope I can encourage you today to challenge the way you see the world, because if you open your eyes, I promise you will discover beauty in places you never would have imagined.
New York City, Paris, Greece, Ireland
NYC: Vastly diverse people, sharing inches of space together.
My first destination was NYC. I really enjoyed Manhattan, and because I usually don’t ride the subway, my favorite pastime was indeed, riding the subway. I saw all worlds of strangers, suits sitting next to homeless, and vagabonds sitting next to housewives. I’ll never forget the talkative lady who told me she never wears pants with pockets to avoid getting pickpocketed, and how she put down the “good book” a while ago because Jacob was a stealer. Each person has a unique journey they’re on, just as you and I do. So regardless of your beliefs, never discount anyone because each person’s life story has value.
Paris: Behind-the-scenes still next to the river Seine
My next stop was Paris where I worked as the production designer on the short film “Margot.” Experiencing the city through filmmaking was quite unique. I discovered small shops and neat locations I otherwise would have never noticed, and most Parisians I met were quite friendly and helpful. If you plan on visiting Paris and want to see the Arc de Triomphe or the Centre Pompidou, I suggest going at 4am when no tourists are there, because you’ll have the place to yourself and you’ll see the Arc in a different and more magical light.
Greece: The wilderness at day
I was blessed with a chance to visit Greece with two of my closest friends. Traveling with friends can be fun, but also challenging when you get into fights (as one of our taxi drivers observed). We had great memories such as dance parties till 5am and befriending some local musicians who played music for us on the black sand beach at night. But we also had frustrations. On our first night, we got stranded with bags full of groceries, hitchhiked to the wrong location, and wandered in the wilderness for 2.5 hours to find our accommodation. But amidst this horror story, I will tell you I have never seen a sky full of stars more beautiful than that night. We also made friends with a wandering horse that kept us company, and we now have a story we can look back and laugh at, once upon a time. When faced with frustrations while traveling, try to find the silver linings in your experience that will make you appreciate life more.
Ireland: Parkour adventures
Traveling solo in Ireland for a month was easily was my favorite part of the trip. I was in a country where no one knew me, so I could be whoever I wanted to be. Many people are nervous about traveling solo, but it was one of my most freeing experiences. If you decide to travel solo, my advice to you is this: talk to strangers and live locally. I appreciated the tourist attractions such as the Cliffs of Moher, but the memories I treasured the most were the ordinary and simple ones. I remember eating frozen pizza and watching crappy T.V. movies with two locals I met in Dingle. In Dublin, a kind folk band opened their house to me for a couple days and we sat at their dinner table discussing photography, philosophy, and music. Another person invited me to a parkour event, so I spent the day in a warehouse watching people from all over Ireland practice parkour. You may think I’m crazy, befriending random people. And I do believe it is important to be cautious and make wise decisions while traveling, and I thank God for watching over me. But at some point, you must let go of your fear of strangers because most people in the world are not out to get you, regardless of what the media tells you. There are a handful of crooked people, but most people are like you and me – just trying to get through life one day at a time. When you let your fears and judgments fall to the side, you’ll discover a whole new potential of human interactions where honesty and kindness can freely flow.
India: Amongst the numbers, each child is unique
I spent most of my travel time in India. For 5.5 months, I taught at a residential school, Shanti Bhavan (SB), in the remote village of Baliganapalli. SB serves children in the Dalit (or “Untouchables” caste). During my time here, I saw with my own eyes how education is a key element in breaking the cycle of poverty. Children enter SB from incredibly challenging backgrounds. At school, they learn academics but also lessons in hygiene, morals, self-respect, and current world news. They have discussions about sexism in India, the LGBT community, and the political crises in the Middle East. And on top of this, they can express themselves as children. They play sports, sing in choir, make arts and crafts, dance, watch movies, and do slam poetry. This liberal arts approach is something so rare and precious in India. I have seen the lifestyles these children are from, and I have seen SB alumni now working at Mercedes Benz, Goldman Sacchs, and Ernst & Young. But the best moral value instilled in the children is not to earn money just for themselves and their families, but to give back to people in India who need help. This model is sustainable and is truly making a dent in the cycle of poverty.
There were many fond experiences I had at SB, but also challenging ones. Although I loved teaching, many times I felt discouraged. I had to pull myself out of bed sometimes and remind myself why I had to teach: for the children, and their futures. Volunteering for a non-profit abroad is only sometimes full of happy smiles and good feelings of servitude. Sometimes you mess up, and sometimes your students dislike you. When you see pictures of people working abroad, smiling with a group of children, remember this is only half the experience. The other half is most likely not plastered all over Facebook. Amidst the difficulties though, it was the small subtleties that pushed me through. Along with teaching literature, photography, and choir, I gave piano lessons to one of my eighth grade students Sumathi. It was the simplest things that got her excited – every time she played all the notes correctly on a scale, she would bop up and down on her seat, laughing and clapping her hand. Her joy was so pure. Sometimes we would have breaks in our lessons where she would talk about her classes and friends, and it was in those conversations that Sumathi became more real to me. Often, it is easy to group “those in need” into one category. But when you think of underprivileged children in Peru, or refugees escaping Syria, remember that each one of those people has a name, an identity, a passion, a dislike, and a favorite color. Those in need cannot simply be identified as “those in need.” They are individuals with a personality, mind, and heart of their own.
After SB, I spent a month in Mumbai volunteering at the organization Dharavi Art Room. Dharavi Art Room is led by two locals who hold art classes for children in the Dharavi slum, the largest slum in Mumbai. Working here was challenging as the kids spoke Hindi, but the beauty of drawing is that an Indian cat looks the same as an American cat. It was here that I saw the overwhelming power of art. Children showed up early to class and stayed late just to keep painting. I saw how art was giving these kids happiness and confidence amidst a troubling living environment. The Dharavi Art Room is a constant source of inspiration for me, even to this day. I wish I could share all my memories of India with you, of traveling the trains in Mumbai, breaking fast with my friend on the first day of Ramadan, meditating silently for 10 days, photographing abandoned factory sites, celebrating Holi, and so much more. But I’m running out of space to write!
I wish I could tell you that when I returned to the U.S. I was a better person with a clear path of where my life was going. But transitioning was not easy. The past 10 months were like a storybook I read overnight, and the next morning I woke up in the same bed I fell asleep in. My past was blurred, and my future was as confusing as Harry and Ron reading tea leaves in Divination. For two months, I experienced an influx of anxiety because of situations I now had to face. A part of me believed that life would be easier after returning from my travels, but indeed, this part of my travel has been the hardest yet. Adjusting to a square lifestyle has made me reach down into my memories and apply the lessons I learned abroad. I’ve now learned to enjoy every moment I have with my family (whether it is laughing or yelling) because neither them nor I will be around forever. I take long walks around the lake, because the stillness of water reminds me that peace can be found if we seek it. I accept the pain as it comes, because I can’t expect life to always treat me kindly. I wake up and thank God daily that He has given me another day to experience the wonders of life. I know now, and continue to learn, how to succumb to the beautiful subtleties that make every second of our existence worth it.