It’s hard to believe that 2015 has come to a close. It was a year of travel but also a year of changes.
After traveling for the first 8 months of the year, in August, I settled down in an apartment in Amman, Jordan, where I’m now living and working. Over the course of 2015, I visited 10 countries (including: Israel, Jordan, Denmark, the U.S., France, Spain, Portugal, Thailand, Cambodia, and Greece) and had countless adventures. And, I signed a one-year lease on an apartment in Amman, which was harder to do than I thought…the idea of being tied to one place to live was a year was a bit strange to me after months of being on the move all of the time!
In honor of this year ending and 2016 starting, I wanted to share my top 15 of 2015:
1. Couchsurfing in Israel
One of the most rewarding parts of international travel was getting to know locals. And, I found that there was no way to get to know people than to sign up for Couchsurfing and find a host to stay with for a few days!
In Israel, I had two great couchsurfing experiences. In the north, Craig and I stayed on a kibbutz with a couple just outside of Caesarea by the Sea. Ruth and Igor were some of the most hospitable people that we have met — they took us hiking with their friend where we saw a new part of Israel and played in the snow together. We stopped in a Druze village and tried some traditional food. We at dinner with Ruth’s family and got to know her siblings. We went to an American-themed bar at Tel Aviv and listened to a band over beer and hot cider. I also learned all about life on a kibbutz and gained a deeper understanding of issues impacting young adults living in Israel today. (Thanks again to Igor, Ruth, Ziv, and Mette for being wonderful hosts!)
2. Freelance Work in Jordan
While in Jordan last February, I had the opportunity to do some freelance work. Through this work, I was able to talk firsthand with Syrian refugees who had fled violence at home to come to Jordan to live. While I had read much about this conflict and the resulting humanitarian crisis in the news, having the chance to talk with refugees close to my age about their situation and their struggles was a moving experience.
You can read more about two of the refugees that I interviewed in my piece last March in The Huffington Post.
After spending time with refugees in February, I knew that it would be hard to me not to do something to be an active part in assisting those impacted by the Syrian refugee crisis. But, even then, I had no idea that I’d end up living in Jordan and working directly on this issue 6 months later!
3. Desert Wonders of Jordan and Israel
One of my favorite things about Jordan and something unexpected about my travels through Israel was the amazing desert hiking in the two countries. From the desert castles in Eastern Jordan (much under-rated in my opinion!) to hills where you can see Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan from Israel to the wonder of the world that is Petra to the martian-like landscape of Wadi Rum, there are amazing desert landscapes in this part of the world. And, if you love hiking and camping, there are endless opportunities to hike, climb sand dunes, amble through miles of ruins, and much more in Jordan and Israel’s deserts.
4. Unexpected Stop in Europe — Copenhagen!
On our way back to the U.S. for a wedding, Craig and I found that our cheapest plane ticket option had a 2-day layover in Copenhagen…how wonderful! When we had planned our round-the-world (RTW) trip, we had not planned to visit Europe. However, a couple days in Copenhagen was perfect…and, after being in Asia and the Middle East for 7 months, a bit of a culture shock! So clean, so organized…so different from where we had been!
From the charming city streets to the mermaid in the water, I’m so glad that I got a taste of just what Denmark has to offer. I’d love to go back one day (and also not be there on a strict shoestring budget!).
5. Wedding in CA + Surprises in SC
One of the most fun things about our return to the U.S. was not only celebrating my brother-in-law’s wedding in CA but also planning a surprise for my family in SC. While they knew that Craig and I were returning to the U.S. for a wedding, many of them did not realize that I would be coming to South Carolina to visit them!
We had a great time decompressing from all of our travels in San Diego, danced the night away to celebrate my brother-in-law’s wedding on the beach in CA, and got some snuggle time in with my adorable twin toddler nephews. From there, it was off to SC where I pulled off a huge surprise when we showed up at my mom’s house totally unexpected (outside of her husband and my sister who helped to coordinate the surprise!). After I surprised her, she insisted that I also surprise my grandparents, aunt, cousin, and other family for Easter lunch that weekend.
Family weddings + family surprises = so much fun!
6. France as an Adult
After my epic family surprises in April, Craig and I found ourselves stuck in transition A couple potential job opportunities had come up, and we began considering cutting our trip short. However, while we were waiting to hear back on employment opportunities and weighing our options, we came across a $250 ticket to Paris — how could we say not to that????
So, off again to Europe we went! With a strong U.S. dollar, Europe was much more affordable than it had been on the start of our trip.
While both Craig and I had previously visited Paris, it was so much fun to go as an adult and go together. After months of serious traveling, our week in Paris seemed like a bit of vacation. We drank wine and ate cheese by the Seine. We perused Paris’ many parks and stood in awe of its churches. We added our own “love lock” to one of the city’s many bridges. (Despite Craig’s protestations…and the fact that I think the locks have now been removed…)
With full days and late nights, our time in Paris was wonderful. Reinvigorated after some time resting and with family in the U.S., we were happy to be back on the road again.
7. Walking Across Spain (aka The Camino de Santiago)
The main reason that we had been looking at plane tickets to Europe (and ended up in Paris…See #6) was that we were trying to get close to Spain. After 10 years of dreaming about it, and then talking to a elderly woman at a hostel in southern Israel about it, Craig and I made up our minds that we wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, all the way across Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela where the body of Saint James is said to be buried in the city’s cathedral.
Walking the Camino is one of the hardest and most amazing things I have ever done. It was physically, and at times, also mentally difficult. It was an experience unlike any other. For just over a month, every day, your purpose was to get up, put on your boots, strap on your pack, and walk. While we were trying to follow a particular plan, there wasn’t a set place to start or end each day, and we could just walk until we were done for the day, find an albergue for the night (many which had gigantic rooms with 25, 50, or even more than 100 beds!), eat a huge meal, drink Spanish wine, and begin again the next day.
In addition to the experience of just walking, the Camino de Santiago is also a very social experience. People walk for very different reasons and within just meeting you, your fellow pilgrim is ready to tell you about their decision to walk and all about their life. I got to know some amazing pilgrims and became part of a Camino family that provided me with hours of great conversation, laughter, singing of Disney songs, and so much more along the way.
8. Solo Travel in Portugal
After 10 months of traveling together, once we arrived to Portugal, Craig and I made the decision to head separate ways for a while. He headed back to the U.S. to attend the wedding of a close friend and spend time with family, and I decided to keep traveling through Portugal and (hopefully!) make it back to Spain (see #9). While I absolutely love traveling with Craig, I also enjoyed being a solo traveler for about a month.
Solo travel can be stressful. After months of having someone by my side, it was just me to plan, navigate, figure out all food and accommodations, etc. But, once you do it on your own again, you realize how capable you really are. And, while I love being able to share my travels with someone, when solo traveling I got to spend more time doing some of the things that I like (that Craig doesn’t as much), like spending hours at markets and art museums (or as Craig just said, “anything that involves feelings”). And, then at the end of each day, I got to call Craig and tell him all about it!
If you haven’t traveled solo, I recommend that, at least, once you give it a try. It might seem scary at first, but it’s more fun than you might think!
9. (Finally!) Making it to Barcelona
As I continued to travel through Portugal, I knew that I had to return to Spain. After two trips to Spain, I had still not made it to Barcelona, which I couldn’t believe had happened. Seeing the Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia was one of my dreams. So, as I continued to travel through Portugal, I made plans to make my way to Barcelona…I wasn’t leaving Europe without getting to Barcelona first! And, when I arrived, I wasn’t disappointed.
Barcelona is the city in Spain where I’ve stayed the longest and also that is probably my favorite. The architecture, the food, the mix of old and new, the unique culture, the beaches and ocean views…the city is so unique and has so much to offer. Despite a few very long bus rides to get there, I am extremely happy that I finally made it to Barcelona!
10. Bangkok, Bangkok, Bangkok
There is just something about SE Asia that connects with me. And, my trip to Bangkok solidified my love for this region. Bangkok is a bit chaotic, a bit dirty, a bit crowded, loud, and crazy. But, I couldn’t get enough of it. From the one of the world’s largest weekend markets to high-end shopping malls, from ancient ruins to modern Buddhist and Hindu shrines, from jumping in and out of small boats motoring through the city’s canals to the Sky Train through town, Bangkok is an incredible city that I think I could return to again and again and again and never get tired of it! I look forward to being able to return to Thailand one day to explore more of the country.
11. Thai Food
It’s delicious. It’s cheap. There is such a variety. It’s some of the best food I’ve had in the world. Seriously, I’ve considered looking for jobs in Bangkok just so I can eat amazing Thai food every day.
Really, though…I have…
12. Returning to Cambodia
During my first and second years of graduate school, I spent a summer with the Ponheary Ly Foundation (PLF) in Siem Reap, Cambodia. After an incredible experience both working with the organization and also living in Cambodia, I vowed that I would come back within 5 years to show Craig one of the places that I love most in the world.
And, exactly 5 years after I first worked with the PLF, Craig and I decided to return to Cambodia so that he could see the amazing Angkor Wat, get to know the organization I worked with, and spend some time living in Siem Reap. While the city had changed and grown a good bit since I was last in Siem Reap, it was great to return to Cambodia, to bike through the busy alleys around Pub Street, and to connect with friends and students I worked with 5 years ago.
13. Building Bridge with the PLF
As a part of my work with the PLF earlier this year, Craig and I worked on the development of part of the science curriculum that would be taught at one of the schools the PLF works in. One of the topics to be covered in science classes was bridges and engineering. As many of the children live in very rural areas, the PLF wanted to introduce them to a potential career option while also teaching them about physics in the process.
After putting together a curriculum, over a three-day period, Craig and I taught and worked with students after school on bridges. They learned about the different types of bridges, building techniques that can make bridges stronger, bridges around the world, and what exactly an engineer does (and how it’s related to bridges!). On the last day, we had the chance to test the bridges to see which was the strongest. I think that it was just as fun for us as it was for the kids!
If you’ve thought about volunteering overseas but don’t know where to start, I would highly encourage you to check out the PLF and their volunteer opportunities.
14. Moving to Jordan
Probably the most significant event for me in 2015 was my move to Jordan. After a full year of traveling, I decided that I would take a job managing relief projects with Syrian refugees in Jordan.
Craig and I had thought a lot about what would happen when our trip came to an end…Would we return to the U.S.? Would we try to keep traveling beyond a year? However, when an opportunity came up to move to Jordan, we decided that it would be a good next step for both of us.
And, we have really enjoyed living in Amman. We have a great apartment not far from my office. We’ve made friends with people from around the world. I’ve joined a local dance studio and even performed in The Nutcracker this December. And, there are lots of options for both domestic and international travel on weekend and holidays, which keeps our wanderlust in check!
15. Christmas on Lesvos
After months of debating what to do for Christmas… Should we go to Bethlehem like last year? Should we check out Europe’s Christmas markets? Should we stay in Jordan? Should we go home to the U.S.? Craig and I came upon an opportunity to volunteer with refugees arriving to a Greek island not far from Turkey with Lighthouse Relief. While Jordan is home to nearly 700,000 refugees (more than 630,000 who are from Syria), we decided that, even in the short-term, we could also do something to help those arriving to Greece.
Just as many around the world have been, we’ve been captivated by the stories of those who risk everything to cross the sea for a second chance. (You can read a previous post of mine on this topic here.) So, we made the decision to go, to help, and to tell the stories of those we meet. I hope to be able to share these with you soon. (My first two posts on our volunteer experience can be found here and here.)
Thanks for reading along and being a part of my 2015. I love being able to share my adventures with you and also to hear about your lives too. I look forward to sharing our experiences in 2016 together!