Whenever I tell people where I’ve traveled, I always get the same question: what was your favorite place? This is quite possibly the hardest question to answer. How can I select one place out of 25 countries, 100 cities, 1,000’s of experiences? It is impossible. For anyone who has traveled a bunch, you can probably relate to the difficulty of answering this question. I just don’t want to commit to choosing just one place as my favorite when there are different aspects of each place that I enjoyed. Instead, I’m going to answer this question with a list of my top experiences that I’ve had while traveling the world. Here we go:
- Visiting the U.K. and Ireland with People to People. I first traveled abroad when I was only 12 years old. My mother decided it was important for me to get out of my comfort zone, when I was anonymously elected for a trip with People to People. This program was started by President Eisenhower on September 11, 1956, in order to encourage American youth to see the world and interact with different cultures abroad. Eisenhower’s vision to enhance international understanding and friendship translates into action by thousands of members around the world.I was a shy girl with barely any friends, so my mom gave me a nudge and sent me abroad for one month the summer after 6th grade. This experience changed my life forever. I emerged from my shell and made tons of close friends. There were about 30 kids from different neighborhoods around Philadelphia. We visited London, stayed in homestays with locals, went to Stonehenge, drove to Wales and took lessons in Welsh. We took a ferry to Ireland and kayaked on the frigid waters next to the Wicklow Mountains. We stayed with homestays outside Dublin. I learned Gaelic slang. We visited Waterford Crystal and I bought a crystal cherub. We drove to Scotland and stayed in my first hostel. I peaked up kilts and ran around Edinburgh Castle. I got my first kiss at the Millennial Dome in London. This was the most life changing trip and set me on my path to a life of traveling. Send your children abroad with People to People it will help shape them forever. https://www.ptpi.org/Home
- Living in a castle in the Netherlands. I went to Emerson College in Boston for my undergrad and they owned a castle in the Netherlands. I studied there with 79 other students for a semester. It was a gorgeous 13th century castle in the small town of Well and it had two motes around it and peacocks and swans on the grounds. We had Eurail passes included in tuition and were able to travel each week to different countries. The Kasteel Well had traditional Dutch food served in the dungeon dining hall by a local family. It was a very unique experience.
- Skydiving in the Swiss Alps. On the same study abroad trip, I visited the town of Interlaken with some of my classmates. Interlaken is an adorably, quaint town in the Swiss Alps. It gets its name from its position between two lakes, Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. It is a magical place full of extreme sports. You can ski, snowboard, night sled, paragliding, and skydive. I chose skydiving. My friend Jessalyn and I put on our bright orange jumpsuits and strapped ourselves on top of two Australian men. We hovered over the white glistening slopes of the Alps in a helicopter. The pilot made sure to dip and swoop in every direction, making us feel as if we might drop out the sides. When it came time to go, I couldn’t stop hyperventilating. We stepped out the side of the helicopter and tumbled through the biting cold air. It was like a silent film, all I could hear was wind gushing past my ears and see blue and white swimming around me. We stretched out our arms like birds soaring through the sky, and we floated on the clouds until gravity tugged at our bodies. Then he pulled on the parachute and we bounced up a few feet and then glided down to the grass field below. When my butt hit the ground, I stared up in awe at what I had just experienced. This was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had and I would do it again. I highly recommend it.
- Going on Birthright to Israel. If you are Jewish and between the ages of 18 and 26, you can go on a free 10-day trip to Israel. My father is Jewish and my mother isn’t. Birthright isn’t that strict though, as long as you have some Jewish heritage you can go. They actually encourage more secular Jews to visit Israel and learn about their heritage. It was an amazing opportunity to meet other people from all over the U.S. and travel all over Israel. We started in the Golan Heights then we visited Jerusalem and placed our prayers in the wailing wall. We stayed in Bedouin tents in the desert and rode camels and donkeys. We climbed Masada and heard the history of the place. We floated in the dead sea, tasting the salt on our lips and feeling its hands buoy us to the surface. I ate so much hummus and falafel. We visited Haifa and Jaffa and danced the night away in Tel Aviv. It was a life changing experience that brought me closer to my roots. If you are Jewish, I highly encourage taking the opportunity to go.
- Visiting the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. My other heritage comes from Ireland. My mother’s family is Irish, English, and whole other smattering of European mutt, but I connect most with the Irish part. I’ve visited Ireland three times. First, I went when I was 12 with People to People, then I returned during my study abroad to visit Dublin, and lastly I flew one way to Shannon Airport on the west coast of Ireland. This trip introduced me to my favorite city in Ireland, Galway. It is cobble-stoned and quaint and full of live music at every turn. It is a short hour trip south to visit the Cliffs of Moher. These jagged green cliffs jet out into crashing shores. I could barely hold my balance at the edge, as the wind threatened to knock me over. I went alone and felt the glory of these cliffs with my every being. You can take tours there, but I suggest staying in Lisdoonvarna (home of the matchmaking festival) and taking a bus there on your own. It is very moving.
6. Wandering through the Alhamabra in Granada, Spain. Granada, Spain is a magnificent city that blends the old Muslim Moorish influence in the old city with the Catholic Spanish influence in the new city. On one side sits cathedrals and street art, on the other you find hookah bars, thick woven rugs, and Moroccan goods sold by Muslim Spaniards along the steps that lead up to the Alhambra. The old city was built along the side of the hills. The streets are steep staircases weaving in and out of each other like an Escher drawing. It is a labyrinth of open front stores with haggling owners and creperies mixed with hookah bars. Tapas are free here with the purchase of a drink. Wine is cheaper than water. Your calves burn as you navigate the steep staircases on your way to El Mirador, the look out at the top of the hill. Gypsies and hippies are said to live inside the caves along the top of the mountains. I climbed 50 staircases to reach the Alhambra, the last remaining palace of the Moorish royalty. This wonder of the world stands atop a cliff that drops down either side. The palace is adorned with Arabic carved into its walls. Ceramic tiles line the floors. Fountains spit water in the courtyards. Best of all the gardens on the grounds of the palace smile with bright colors and provide a painter’s masterpiece. This is a place that should be on everyone’s European list. Granada is one of my favorite cities and the Alhambra is a breathtaking work of art.
7. Exploring Gaudi’s Architecture in Barcelona, Spain. Spain is home to two of my favorite cities. Barcelona and Granada tie for two of the coolest places to visit in Europe. Barcelona is a hip city full of young expat Europeans and people from all over the world who are artists, musicians, hippies, and skate boarders. I’d move there in a heartbeat. Las Ramblas, a quirky avenue at the center of town, features a marketplace full of strange animals in cages including pigeons, lizards, chickens, and other animals you wouldn’t buy at a pet store. At night the strip is decorated by metallic painted street performers and break dancing crews. My favorite thing about Barcelona is the architecture. Gaudi designed houses, gardens, and cathedrals with a whimsical eye. His most famous was the Sagrada Familia, which he died before completing. I created my own tour around Barcelona to look at all of his architecture and found it extremely fascinating.
8. Picking Olives in Tuscany, Italy. If you have never tried WWOOFing, you should. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities On Farms. I had the unique experience of wwoofing on an olive farm in the middle of Tuscany. I worked for three weeks picking olives and making olive oil. The farmer, Vilmo Barbi, was delightful and very accommodating. Me and the other volunteers were set up in our own little villa apartment by the olive trees. Each day we worked from 9am to 12pm and then we joined Vilmo and his mother in the main house for a 4 course meal. We ate hand rolled pasta, fresh made tomato sauce from their garden tomatoes, fluffy home baked bread from the baker up the street, and spicy pressed olive oil made that week. Everything was local or homemade and created with the best organic ingredients. I managed to stuff my face every day with blocks of cheese, gallons of red wine, and lots and lots of carbs. I gained so much weight, but I was full of joy. This experience is topped by no other. The hills rolled around us with lines of Cyprus trees. Hill towns leered down at us with castle walls. It was heaven and felt like I was in a movie. Visit wwoof.org to find your perfect farming experience all over the world.
9. Volunteering in the Cloud Forest in Ecuador. For my Master’s research in Applied Anthropology, I lived in the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest, studying how we could better include the needs of communities into conservation. I woke up at the crack of dawn each morning, as the blanket of clouds retreated back from the mountains and revealed jagged tips and fresh green grass. The dense forests chirped with exotic birds and buzzing with humming birds and reptiles. I helped maintain hiking trails and prune back encroaching bushes. I rescued orchids from fallen tree limbs. I searched for evidence of endangered mountain tapirs. I played with squirrel monkeys. Most of all, I worked with the local farming community to help protect their rights. It was challenging and impacted my life in a positive way. You can also volunteer in the Cloud Forest doing conservation all over Ecuador. There are various programs that let you stay and help with their projects.
10. Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Of course, I didn’t have an underwater camera at the time, so I couldn’t capture all the spectacular fish we saw, but it was hands down the best snorkeling I’ve ever done. I’ve snorkeled in Jamaica, Mexico, Hawaii, Bali, Thailand, and Cambodia. The fish are just one-of-a-kind here. There are tie-dye fish with bright rainbow designs. There are prickly puffer fish with orange spikes. There are sharks and sea turtles. The coral is pink, purple, black, and shimmery silver. It is an explosion of colors. You just float for hours watching them zip around you like a strange foreign object. I saw eels and pencil fish swimming in schools. We left from Airlie Beach on a bright yellow speed boat named the Big Banana and charged through the Whitsunday Islands. The beaches had squeaky white sand that were 100% silica and guanas that look like komodo dragons. We dove in at 4 different spots and every one of them was as fascinating as the last. The Great Barrier Reef is dying and the corals are becoming bleached, so visit it while you can. The waters are getting too warm due to global warming. Get there now for a peek of what is left.
11. Attending a Traditional Hindu Ceremony in Ubud, Bali. My sister and I visited our aunt and uncle in Bali. They live there every winter for two months, conducting business. Since they always stay with the same hosts, they have become like family to them. Their host, Ketut, invited us to attend a neighborhood ceremony for a Hindu holiday. You can pay $10 to attend a touristy performance of a ceremony, but this was the real thing. We were dressed in sarongs and scarves used as belts. Every home has a temple at the center of it in Bali. They are very religious people. We walked to a neighboring temple for the ceremony. Ketut’s husband played traditional Gamelan music with fellow men from the area. There is a xylophone looking instrument with long metal keys that are banged with a metal gavel. Women brought around tea and snacks for the audience. Young girls and older women performed intricate dances in bright colored sarongs. Their hands bent in ways I couldn’t imagine. A man performed a masked play about the history of Bali and Hinduism. It ended with a feast of traditional dishes like gado gado, that is prepared with peanut sauce and tofu. Everything was delicious, but extremely spicy. This was an experience you could not pay for. I’m lucky to have been able to attend.
12. Riding bikes through Angkor Wat. My sister and I rented bikes from our guest house in Siem Reap. My bike was too tall for me, so I toggled back and forth on it not able to fully balance. Mandie raced ahead of me, weaving in and out of traffic. I almost got hit by multiple cars. We reached the dirt road leading to the famous temples of Angkor Wat. I taught about Cambodia in a class at OSU and was excited to finally be seeing these infamous temples. We explored the main temple, Angkor Wat, on foot. The sun scorched us from above. We wandered the crumbling stone hallways. We hopped back on our bikes and bounded down the road with monkeys playing around us. Angkor Thom had large stone faces lining the bridge and around the temple. This entire place is a time machine back in time. The forest has started taking over and growing through the cracks and crumbling stones of the temples. It is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and should definitely be visited.
13. Staying on a Secluded Island off of Cambodia. While backpacking around S.E. Asia, my sister and I got the opportunity to stay on a small island off of the coast of Cambodia. We pitched tents in the sand and hung hammocks in the trees. We didn’t wear shoes for three days or change out our bathing suits. The turquoise waters of the ocean were our shower and we joined fellow travelers at base camp for communal meals. We watched the sunset between the green mountains and passed swigs of absinthe around. It was unreal and a total paradise. I won’t tell you the name of the island though, because I don’t want it to get overrun with tourism and ruin its essence.
14. Living and Working on Buddhist Monastery in Thailand. We woke up at 5am every morning to meditate and do an hour of yoga. You couldn’t talk until after you ate your fresh fruit and coconut yogurt for breakfast. We spent our days learning permaculture and making a kitchen outdoors out of rocks from the quarry. We made mosaics of Buddha on the water cisterns. In the evening, we learned about the teachings of Buddha. It was hot and humid and required showering constantly. The toilets were holes in the ground. We prayed with the monks on Buddha Day and presented them with food. The project was called the Mindfulness Project and it filled my heart with joy. Everyone was lovely and smart and from every country you could think of. This experience moved me in ways I never knew possible. I learned Thai and mindfulness and happiness and love for myself. I wrote a book about it.