2017 is off to a frosty start, which means it’s time for me to return to blogging after a long, well-needed break. With my novel manuscript in the revisions stage, I have some more time on my hands, and I’m looking forward to turning some attention back to La Viajera. This week’s photo comes from my favourite city in the world, dear old Amsterdam. While the Netherlands hasn’t seen much snow this year, the air has a bite to it, and I have to remember not to leave the house without at least one pair of warm gloves for the long cycles across town.
When I first meet the American sisters, I wonder why they would ever move here. Everyone in this tiny Jordanian village belongs to the same Bedouin tribe. Everyone except them. My friend and I sit cross-legged in a shadowy room, our knees flirting with the edge of the crackling fire. Eight others perch around us – all men, save for the two Americans. The sisters don’t wear hijabs; they sport full afros.
Khaled, our new friend and host, sits across from us in his white robes and red-checked keffiyeh. He sucks on a hookah pipe. Smoke seeps from his lips to mingle with that of the fire, while the sisters babble away in Arabic with surprising ease. A boy approaches with a basin and a jug. One of the sisters nods at me, and I rinse my hands as he pours the water. Dinner is served. We’re ushered to a space away from the flames, and someone places our cushions on the concrete floor. The sisters collapse onto them with practiced grace, but I struggle to recover the flexibility of my childhood. I shift my legs as pins and needles begin to tingle my feet. Khaled brings in an enormous round tray, more than 50 cm wide.
While I was back in Canada for the holidays, a number of friends asked why I’d stopped blogging. The simple answer would be that life got in the way, that I wanted to focus on writing fiction which already soaked up most of my free time. Of course, answers like this are never that simple. Admittedly, part of me disliked the possibility of classmates, instructors, or potential freelance clients reading my blog and using it to judge my writing abilities. While I try to avoid posts that are utterly illegible, I wouldn’t call my itinerant ramblings an ideal sample of my work. On top of that, I realized that a successful blog requires a ridiculous amount of time and self-promotion. I regularly feel guilty publishing my blog posts on my own Facebook profile, so how could I ever expect to expand my reach beyond a contained circle of family and friends? However, the truth is that I miss blogging. Nobody expects Pulitzer-quality craftsmanship on packing strategies for backpackers, and I don’t know 3/4 of the people who read my blog posts. As for the time issue, that’s a poor excuse for anything. The amount of time I waste getting sucked into click-baited videos and articles each day would be more than enough to write a post of my own. More than anything, I came to the conclusion that I’d lost a bit of my identity in the past year. I became so focused on school and supplementing my studies with as much work as I could handle, that I slowly loosened my grip on the other important things in my life.
There’s something strange about packing for home the way you would pack for a holiday, choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. That’s what I’m doing right now as I prepare to return to Canada. I’ll arrive exactly a year after I left. 365 days of traveling, living, and working abroad.
This time, I’m returning home with the dawning awareness that I’m not nearly the person I was when I left. As always, the places we go, the people we meet, and the experiences we have change us, and this year, these changes have ingrained themselves more deeply than before.
I’ve felt priorities shift, flirted with the idea of settling in one spot, but still found myself wandering as often as I can, stepping foot in new lands and encountering new cultures. As always, the friendships I’ve formed have been paramount in defining who I am and where I’m headed.
Fourteen years ago, on June 6, 2000, I stood with my family at the Canadian cemetery by Juno Beach. We had arrived at the commemoration ceremony partially by accident; unable to find a camping spot, we’d parked our VW Westfalia in the cemetery parking lot, and awoke the next morning to find ourselves surrounded by armoured vehicles, teary-eyed veterans, and soldiers with machine guns. I have no doubt that it was being there, along with coinciding visits to Vimy, Verdun, and numerous other WWI/II sites in northern Europe, that taught me the importance of remembrance.
Five years ago this week, I arrived alone in a new city and was greeted by strangers. I had no idea that in getting off that train at Tilburg Centraal, I was stepping into what would form the most memorable chapter of my life to date. In the semester that followed, I would build strong, lasting friendships; fall in love; party to no end; and learn an infinite amount about myself and what I wanted in life. But my experience wasn’t anything out of the ordinary; this is just what it means to study abroad.
If there’s one piece of advice I can press on all young students, it’s to go abroad. Study somewhere new — somewhere that pushes your boundaries, that makes you feel uncomfortable and loved and at home all at the same time. It’s a choice that will mould your lifestyle, your friendships, and your values. Studying abroad will change you for the better.
10 Lessons Learned While Studying Abroad
1. Friendship can Cross Borders: One of the best aspects of studying abroad is the wealth of international friendships that you acquire. Make the effort to keep in touch. The way social media and travel works today, there’s no telling when you’ll have the chance to rekindle these relationships. More importantly, use these connections as a chance to learn about the world. I’ll never forget how the Colombians and Brazilians gave me my first glimpse at Latin dance at Intro Camp!
George Bailey: You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?
Uncle Billy: Uh huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served; dinner…
George Bailey: No no no no. Anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.
-It’s a Wonderful Life
I lie in bed in the loft of my grandmother’s condo, a condo which overlooks a river that trails through a city. A city in the middle of nowhere, I could say. A city in the center of everything, you might argue.
As I lie here, surrounded by overflowing suitcases and half-packed boxes, I gaze up through the skylight. The starry sky shines with all the brilliance of a hot summer night. In the past week, the clouds have gathered, the rain has poured, and the province has flooded.
But none of this matters to me — tomorrow, I’m leaving. Read more →
Hostel life can be easy and comfortable if you remember to pack beyond the basics. Although I try to keep my backpack as light and compact as possible, there are a few “extras” I always bring with me.
Here’s my list of seven things that you shouldn’t leave home without, whether you’re backpacking for a week or a year.
Locks: This is essential for staying in dorm rooms. Most provide lockers, but you are normally expected to bring your own lock. I prefer using a combination lock so I don’t have to carry around a key, but sometimes the lockers won’t fit a regular combination lock, so my small padlock that I use to lock my suitcase comes in handy. If you have room for the extra weight, a cable lock is a good tool for the solo traveler in case you need to momentarily leave your baggage unattended. (Which I don’t recommend, but sometimes you may leave your bag in a bus agency office or something while waiting for a bus. If you do this, always make sure all of the zippers are locked.