2016 was a big year for me, and I don’t mean only in regards to travel. I finally took some dream trips I put off because of the cost, and ticked a lot of things off my bucket list, including eating a half kilo of Belgian chocolate in one day. But I also learned a lot about myself and made some big decisions. These decisions are now coming to fruition in 2017 and I feel a bit anxious, excited, and relieved. And if I’m being completely honest, stressed and possibly terrified. I haven’t decided yet.
In the midst of feeling all this, I have decided to make 2017 my biggest travel year ever, apparently. Not intentionally, it just seems to be working out that way. I have been to four countries already, and have three more trips booked in the next three months, with a goal to finally visit Australia and New Zealand in June before going home to Tucson. That trip is planned in my mind, but not on paper yet. But in May I will finally tick Portugal off the list, although I think I will want to go back there. This fall? Cuba, before it gets a McDonald’s and Starbucks.
One of the big decisions I made in 2016 was to leave Kuwait after six years of working here, and eleven years working overseas. I resigned from my job two months ago with no idea where I will go next or what I will be doing. It might involve teaching, but I hope not.
I joke that if I ever meet a partner and marry or live in the same house with him, he better know how to use all of the small appliances because I’m done teaching and I’m not going to teach him. I joke, of course, but there’s a small part of me that isn’t. I’m not sure I was ever that passionate about teaching, although there are aspects of it I enjoy. But my ambivalence toward this profession has won out and I am ready to move on to something else.
Will it be travel writing/blogging? I still don’t know. For me, writing about my travels has taken some of the joy out of it, party because writing about it made me realize even most of the people closest to me aren’t interested and aren’t reading or even asking about my experiences, so why would strangers be interested? It’s an incredible amount of time and effort to invest, so far anyway, with very little return. I will decide in the next few months what to do with this domain name. It may just sit here in internet la la land until it dies into obscurity as I move on to something else.
I had some amazing experiences while traveling to, technically, ten countries in 2017 if I include Kuwait, home to the United States, and my annual trip to Puerto Penasco, Mexico where I go every summer with friends. Several of these places had been on my travel bucket list for a long time, like Bhutan, so this was a banner year for me.
2016 started off with a bang with a long-awaited trip to Tanzania in January. This country contains three bucket list places and adventures for me – safari in the Serengeti, climbing Kilimanjaro, and experiencing the beaches of Zanzibar. The safari was only two days, but I saw everything, including the elusive leopard. I was ecstatic. This trip was off to a perfect start.
Climbing Kilimanjaro had long been a dream, and then a goal of mine, but I came up just short of accomplishing it. I made it to Gilman’s Point after struggling mightily with altitude sickness and sleep deprivation (don’t get me started on the reason for that!). Mentally and physically I just couldn’t push myself to Uhuru. But once down off the mountain, it was time to recover in Zanzibar at a lovely resort on the beach. The beaches? Well, not what I expected. Beautiful, but there were some, uhh, let’s just say really “shitty” things about certain areas of the beach that I don’t care to experience again. But I’m still thrilled that I finally got to visit this island’s beaches and Stonetown.
What did I learn in Tanzania? I learned that the right travel partner is VERY important. But more importantly, I learned that something that feels like a failure initially (and sometimes still does) is also a learning experience, and that is a success in and of itself.
I also learned to watch my step on the beach. You never know when something unexpected my be lurking right in front of you…
Next up was Florence, Italy for a week in February. I got a cheap flight, a very reasonably priced “room for one” and I was on my way. And I do mean for one! My room was lovely, but it had a twin bed and no room between the bed and suitcase when it was open. I spent a week wandering the streets of Florence, visiting the museums, taking the train to surrounding hill towns, and drinking copious amounts of Prosecco, which made me happier than it should have. There was also a chocolate festival near my hotel. Talk about a danger zone! I almost made myself sick. It was heavenly.
This was my third trip to Italy, and it won’t be my last. I loved every minute of it, except when I got on the wrong train and realized I was headed the opposite direction of the airport in Rome.
What did I learn in Italy? That copious amount of Prosecco doesn’t have to lead to spending too much money, but it probably will. I also learned what a difference 15 minutes can make when waiting for a train. But most importantly, I was reminded that going solo to a romantic destination, once again, can be liberating, rewarding, freeing, and still incredibly lonely at times.
In March I took an impromptu trip to Athens, Greece where I had been before, but the flights were so cheap I couldn’t resist and I made a long weekend of it. I felt great being in Athens again to experience the grit and energy of this city. And I wasn’t alone on this trip. It was a fab weekend. I thought I’d finally found that very important travel partner I mentioned earlier, and a lot more. I’m just going to leave it at that.
What did I learn in Athens? That I need to open up and not be “hard to read.” I needed to be vulnerable, something I still find incredibly difficult to do.
It wasn’t even two months before I was off again, to Nepal and Bhutan. My friend Alan from Boston joined me on this excursion, and since he’d never been to Kathmandu, we spent a couple of days there seeing the sights and then boarded a plane to Bhutan. It is actually quite easy to get there, but keep your eyes open during the landing in Paro! You won’t believe it! Bhutan is not the unspoiled, undiscovered destination many people think it is, but it is incredibly beautiful and infinitely interesting. The national dish is basically hot chilis smothered in melted cheese. Sign me up!
The highlight was our Haa Valley Trek at the end of the trip, with some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere in the world. I hadn’t hiked or camped in the rain in several years (not counting an morning of walking in the rain on Kili) and I realized my opinion of this particular activity hasn’t changed. I’m over it. But I was experiencing the novelty of Bhutan and the scenery and the conversations with my guide, and these things were enough to distract me from the afternoon rain. But not the hail. I felt every bit of that.
What did I learn in Bhutan? I learned that until I actually go to a place and interact with the locals, I really know nothing about it. Places can surprise, disappoint, and delight us. And they can always teach us. I was also, as I mentioned, reminded of how much I despise hiking and camping in the rain, but I am resilient. I’ll deal with it in order to experience the beauty of a place like Bhutan.
What did I learn wandering the streets of Kathmandu for the third time in six years? That tourism changes a place and its people. This is very evident in Kathmandu, and it hasn’t changed for the better. It’s also evident in Bhutan, where I witnessed and heard about both the positive and negative changes since they opened their country to television, cell phones, internet, and tourism.
I left Bhutan and went back to Kuwait for a few days to pack and head home via England, where I went to visit the man I met in Athens in March. This was my first trip to the north of England, and I found it to be beautiful and green and clean and full of flowers. I liked the slow-pace, people were friendly, and it was the perfect place to go for a run without having to get up with the sun because it never actually got hot there. And I wasn’t alone.
Eerrrkkkk! That’s me, putting on the brakes and being hard to read and not allowing myself to open up and be vulnerable.
What did I learn in England? Apparently, nothing.
After visiting England I went home to Tucson, where I no longer necessarily feel at home, but am always thrilled to be there to see my friends and be in my space again in my own home. And to understand the language and how things work, for the most part, at least. The food, the coffee, the pizza, the beer! Yes, the beer! There is no alcohol in Kuwait, and I don’t really care about that or even miss it, but great craft beer is such an indulgence when I go home, along with the many, many, many flavors of ice cream!
What did I learn from going home? I learned that each year I’m away, I feel less and less like I belong there and more and more like I don’t fit anywhere. Yet I want to fit somewhere. I am not as thrilled with my nomadic ways as I used to be.
On my birthday at the end of August, I returned to Kuwait. I spent my birthday in Heathrow surrounded by strangers and alone. What did I learn from London? Traveling alone on my birthday sucks. But my other options were worse. I could have left home earlier and spent my birthday in Kuwait, also alone, or return late to work and get scolded and possibly docked pay. So I split the difference and spent my big day in an airport and on a plane. At least I could have a beer.
I was back at work for only two weeks and it was time to go again! We had a week long holiday for Hajj, so I headed to Belgium! Oh, the chocolate and the beer and the chocolate beer! How would I ever be able to leave? I must have eaten three kilos of chocolate that week. How do I know? They sell it by the weight! I have no idea how much beer I drank, but I tried so many different kinds. Fortunately, unlike my Prosecco experience, this did not lead to spending too much money, but it did lead to the consumption of large paper cones full of fries. Oh, the fries! How could I ever leave? And the waffles! Waffles! Oh, I was tormented.
What did I learn in Belgium? I learned about chocolate and the production of chocolate. And then I promptly forgot it all and ate more chocolate. While I did visit a Picasso and a Dali exhibit in Belgium, I didn’t visit even one museum. I didn’t care. I had chocolate and beer and fries and waffles to keep me busy. That may sound shallow, but those things are exactly why I wanted to go to Belgium.
After this week off in September, no more holidays awaited me until Dec 28 when I would head to Cape Town, Botswana, and Victoria Falls. It made me incredibly sad that I wouldn’t travel again for three months, but not as sad as the fact that I didn’t bring back enough chocolate from Belgium.
Somewhere in the midst of traveling and working and eating chocolate, I made up my mind to start a travel blog, leave Kuwait for good, and change my career. Or maybe I’ll just be a barista. I still don’t know what I’ll be doing when I leave Kuwait, or where I’ll be doing it. Or who, if anyone, I’ll be doing it with. Finding the answers to all of these questions should make for an exciting 2017.
Now where did I hide that chocolate…