What got me to 193!

December 7, 2017

My overwhelming emotion around completing this incredible journey to all 193 countries is pure GRATITUDE.  I have been so lucky to be helped, inspired, and enabled by so many things and I am thankful to them all.  Here are the things I am most thankful for:

 

FAMILY

 

You can’t pick your family, but I won the lottery.

 

My family has been my biggest support and inspiration. My uncle Frank and Aunt Liz bought me my first atlas and my grandparent’s my first globe. My parents, sisters, and I DROVE to 44 states in our childhood- instilling a love for road trips that has led me to enter 110+ countries by land. My big older cousins inspired me with their early international trips- making travel “cool”. My brother-in-law  and I have played dozen of Sporcle geography quizzes together, testing my knowledge and feeding my interest. My Tante Bettina, with years as a travel agent always gives good tips and can discuss almost any location. My uncles spurred adventure with stories of epic Grand Canyon expeditions. My uncle and aunt helped me set up my first apartment from thousands of miles away- helping me feel quickly at home in a foreign land. My Aunt Vivian and Uncle John tasked and enabled me to do “things I thought I couldn’t.” My uncle in Germany let a 18 year old who hardly spoke German spend a summer with his law firm in Berlin – giving me my first taste of global living. Now I try to be the inspiring one to my nieces and nephew and have sent them postcards from 50+ countries.

 

It also helped that my family is global- as many of my first international trips were to visit relatives Germany, Argentina, and Italy. Which brings up a point I always think of: People say it takes bravery to have done this travel and to have lived abroad since the age of 20, but ALL of my grandparents crossed the Atlantic in the 1950’s when parents and loved ones weren’t a whatsapp group or a Skype call away. They went for new opportunities and learning and I constantly channel that courage. 
 

I would sit with wide eyes and listen to Oma’s tales of life in war-torn Germany and still ask about my grandparent’s life in Italy– with them the rest of the world was always only a memory or imagination away. Oma now rocks it with Opa as my guardian angel shining down positivity.

 

My family has always been there- with dozens of whatsapp messages each day, genuine excitement at each new place, and pointed questions to make me reflect on what I’ve learned. Though I feign annoyance at my mother and father’s worries, it elicits a second glance at precautions in places like South Sudan, Iraq, and Venezuela. They’ve always said, “be careful” but they’ve never said, “don’t go.”

 

Thank you to all of you. I am blessed.

 

 

 

FRIENDS

 

I'm unique to other travelers in that the vast majority of my time is spent staying with local friends in the countries I visit. In nearly 75 countries, making up 90% of my time, I've been either hosted or guided by a former classmate or colleague. In dozens of others, I've been given lovely advice before arriving. In many I've been supported for visas and with invitations that would have otherwise made the trip impossible. I could not have done all of this without each and every one of you. I would not have wanted to.

 

You see, for me, traveling is not about seeing things, it's about learning and understanding. I love to visit historical and culturally important sites, but my favorite travel memories are staying up late after reuniting with a friend and asking question after question about the place, new to me, that they call home. These moments have formed my global understanding and being so graciously welcomed has made me feel like the world is literally my home.

 

That's a question I often get, "Do you miss home?", and my response is that I'm always returning to my "homes" even if I have no house. Especially these last two years of full-time travel, I could not have kept up my momentum without constant stops at "home" in Abu Dhabi / Dubai, Nairobi, Tanzania, and New York. To those of you who have quite constantly hosted me in these places, thank you!

 

In many countries where I was not hosted by a friend, I was traveling with one. I am indebted to all of my travel buddies for keeping up with my crazy adventures. I'm amazed at those of you who say yes when I suggest visiting places like Lethem in Guyana, North Korea, Somaliland, and Tajikistan - how wonderful to have companionship in those journeys.

 

Then there are the friends who always, from a far, have rooted for me. Who have shown genuine joy as the country count got higher and higher, who always eagerly wanted to know what I had experienced or learned, and who cheered me on when things got tough. Even the smallest of actions (a "like on Facebook") and simplest of words have meant the world to me.

 

It is because of my friends, so many of whom love the world and strive to understand its complexities, that I can say "Travel isn't my life. The world is my life".

 

I am so excited that some of you were in Malta to celebrate with me! Thank you all!

 

 

 

STRANGERS

 

How long can someone stay a stranger before becoming a friend?

 

Hundreds of strangers have aided me in my travels: from saving me in times of need to simply greeting me with a smile. It also keeps my spirits up more than you can imagine to receive dozens of messages every week from followers on Instagram- whose kind words give me so much joy. I’ve learned that 99% of the people in this world are good – and I’m so grateful to have encountered so many of them.

Here are some quick stories of amazing strangers:

 

- The Royal Omani Police border officer who shooed away sketchy conmen saying he’ll keep me safe, gave me tea and date sweets, bought me dinner, gave me a place to sleep, and found me a free ride to the city 3 hours away. When I thanked him profusely he responded with, “It’s my job.” His actual job was to stamp my passport.

 

- The CFO in Nauru who invited me to his office Christmas party, gave one of his workers the day off to tour me around in the company car, and loaned me cash to pay my hotel bill when no ATM worked.

 

- The American Peace Corp volunteer in Burkina Faso who translated and negotiated the price for me to rent an entire bus and militia to get me safely into Niger when I got stranded in AQIM territory.

 

- The mother and daughter in Palestine who saw me confused on the bus at the border, helped me get where I needed to go, and then acted as my second home throughout my four months living in the region.

 

- My friend’s brother in Afghanistan who let me stay in his house while he was out of the country, tasked his chief-of-staff to guide me, his cook to make the most delicious meals, and his security detail to keep me safe.

 

- My friend’s cousin in Libya who was asked by his cousin to “give me some tips for Tripoli” but ended up hosting me for three nights, sitting with me for 5 hours to wasta my way into a visa, dealing with my frustrations at all the airport shenanigans, and touring me around.

 

- Everyone in Annaba who became family when a dinner meet-up turned into more than 2 weeks of being hosted while I stressfully waited for a visa.

 

-  My new friend who was asked by his cousin to help me in Algeria and ended up setting me up with friends to guide me in every city and offering homes to stay in. 

 

 - All those who helped me after being robbed at the border in Sudan – buying me tea, my bus ticket, and the taxi to a hotel.

 

- The brothers who found me a home to stay at in Timor Leste and drove me all over for hours each day.

 

- My  cabin-mate on the train to Tbilisi who wasn’t happy with just giving a list of recommendations and so took off work to tour me all around the countryside.

 

Thank you to all of these and SO many more- to those who have become friends, and to those who will forever be anonymous but whose kindness will never be forgotten.

 

 

 

MY CULTS

 

I’ve not just traveled through the world – I’ve engaged with it and hope that in some small ways I’ve contributed to it. From attending global schools to working professionally in 20 countries by the age of 25, I have been a part of and enabled by international institutions that have shaped my experience and who I am. These communities of thinkers and actors have constantly pushed me to better understand the world and to be an efficient and effective part of it.

 

My journey to every country in the world is owed to each of these:

 

UWC USA: In so many ways United World College was the beginning to everything. 200 students, 16-18 years old, from 90+ countries spending two years in an isolated castle resulted in a significant identity shift. I began to see the entire world as my backyard, and with this came a sense of responsibility to better it.

 

New York University: At NYU I began to study just how that betterment could come about. I created my degree of Culturally Inclusive Development – looking at development as not only an increase in economic indicators, but as an increase in quality of life dictated by the affected society. Studying in New York City with such creative global minds like John Sexton showed me that anything is possible. It also gave me the tools to make my dreams into reality through studying abroad, funded international research projects, and school trips to various countries.

 

Trail of Seeds: Concurrently while at NYU, wanting a firsthand look at development but not fully agreeing with the initiatives available, I along with my friend Shannon, founded our own - Trail of Seeds. We worked with groups in rural Tanzania, indigenous populations in Venezuela and Brazil, and agricultural co-ops in St. Kitts. We deeply analyzed the similarities across humanity and gave catalyzing grants to some fantastic initiatives. Along the way we began to understand the complexities and sensitivities of these issues and always hardened our stance to “go in with no pre-conceived notions.”

 

McKinsey & Company: After graduating I joined McKinsey in the Middle East, excited to “solve the world’s biggest problems.” In my 3 years I worked mostly on social sector projects, but was also exposed to telecom, banking, mining, and more. At McKinsey, with the smartest colleagues there are, I felt like a real part of serious impact and had access to global knowledge of the sectors and forces moving our world.

 

SPG: Maybe it sounds silly to say that a hotel brand helped me get to every country, but in the past 4.5 years I have stayed nearly 350 nights with SPG/Marriott. That’s over 20% of my time! This has been spread out at more than 65 properties in nearly 40 countries.And if I could have, I would’ve stayed more! I am always so sad to be in places with no SPG properties. That’s because SPG knows how to make their committed members feel at home and so many of my best travel memories come from these stays.

 

With all of these organizations I became increasingly exposed to and a part of the world in its true universal sense. They each honed my perspective and my ability to engage with global issues of all types. I’ve tried to copy the best and learn from the worst and each day I work towards improvement. I know that these experiences and their communities that I’ll always be a part of, will help me at every step.

 

 

 

ABU DHABI

 

For the past 6.5 years I’ve lived in Abu Dhabi and/or used it as my base. In that time, I’ve grown to love the city and, if you’ve been around me you know, constantly talk about it. Enough so that I’ve been called an “Abu Dhabi propagandist” – a title that I happily accept.

Living here has helped me get to every country simply because of geography. From what other place can you take long weekends to Kenya, Ethiopia, Central Asia, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Georgia, India, Maldives, Seychelles, and more without taking more than 5 hours each way?! It’s not just because it’s close- we have the best airlines in the world with Etihad and Emirates (FlyDubai and AirArabia have their uses too)!

 

This creates a culture of travel and friends will always be jetting off somewhere exciting and coming back with tips. Because the UAE attracts talent from all over the world, these friends themselves will be from many of these locations – it’s truly a global environment and an internationally mobile one.

 

More than all of this- Abu Dhabi has kept me happy and interested. There are no development stories that I find so fascinating and successful – it’s exciting to watch that happen and to be a part of it. There is also nowhere else that I’ve found my interest in identity to be so piqued. Issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and more are constant discussion points and in each the trend is positive. Whereas the UAE is aware of its problems and trying to fix them (albeit not as fast as in a dreamworld), my other homes seem to be stagnating or declining. It’s also motivating to see how many people are bettering their lives through the opportunities provided by the country. And these opportunities are endless, not just in terms of jobs and finances, but in the arts, fashion, music, and more. It’s a place to feel absolutely positive about.

 

It’s also my favorite country to travel in. I’ve been many times to all seven Emirates, explored the Western Region, visited Sir Bani Yas, Liwa, and Al Ain, and wondered in awe at the beauty of a desert sunset. I still have so much to see here.

 

So thank you Abu Dhabi for giving me these opportunities, for teaching me so much, making me think constantly, and being the best jumping off point for world travel!

 

 

 

FAITH

 

Joyous gratitude is the over-powering emotion I have been feeling. Most important, encompassing and fueling all the other things I’ve written about, is my gratitude towards the divine (aka allah or god or any of the many terms I call the ineffable magic.)

 

My spirituality is so special and intimate – so literally essential – that it is difficult to explain. Even so, it’s my favorite topic of conversation and many of you have philosophized and debated it with me. Examining what the divine means to us as individuals and as a global community – both historically and in our modern world - is the most important and phenomenal conversation we can have. It is also deeply phenomenological – and exploring the endless manifestations is awe-inspiring.

 

Part of traveling the world has been searching out these transcendental experiences. For to better understand humanity is to more clearly see God. To appreciate all that is given to us in nature, emotion, and science is to praise God. To give endless thanks is to respect God. And to love is to know God.

 

With these divine truths always in my heart, throughout my soul, on my mind, and out of my mouth – I have been a more centered and happy traveler. I have been a more thoughtful human. I have experienced and given thanks for the wonders of the world.

 

My belief is Islam and there is a true fulfilling excitement to traveling to places where I meet the incredible diversity of our religion and pray together with other Muslims. Nothing is more powerful than united prayer with united belief, but I also love to learn about how our shared understanding is differently interpreted. I’ve experienced varied forms of worship with Christians (which I’m also intimately familiar with), Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and have spent time and learned from Zoroastrians, Druze, Rastafarians, and have visited sites of Yazidi, Shinto, and more. We all manifest it differently, but we are ultimately united by a quest to better understand the ineffable and direct our praise towards it.

 

So, as I do every moment of every day, I say subhanallah, glory be to god. For all of the magic in my life and in this world and for how incredibly connected they have been.

 

 

 

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