Let’s start in Turkey. Cappadocia, to be specific. In a nondescript cave hostel, I met a few fellow Americans, a rare occurrence on the road it seemed to be, with whom I spent an entire day. Hot air ballooning, hiking, climbing to the top of the world (see above) and dinner. All four limbs used great effort to climb to the top of Uchisar Castle, hopping from boulder to boulder for different, stunning panoramic views of the valley. Despite the uneven foundation, I felt like if I could get a running start, I could leap off the edge and fly. Without any skyscrapers or tall houses obstructing the view, it was easy to marinate in how wide and huge the world really is, reassuring me that I’ll never run out of places to explore.
As I sift through all of my travel photos, this one always captures my attention. While I was in Jerusalem, I took a tour into Hebron/Palestinian Territories, and the woman in the photo happened to be one of the guests in my group. Throughout the day, I became increasingly annoyed with her incessant questioning of the tour guide, talking instead of listening when the guide was trying to do his job, and not letting anyone get a word in edgewise. At the end of the day, however, I admired her tenacity and curiosity. She was there to learn, as we all were, and she squeezed every last bit of information out of the tour as she could. Because of that, I think we all learned more than we could’ve hoped for. Coming down from the rooftop of an apartment building where our guide could show us the Palestinian border with more clarity, I caught her in a moment of silence. I asked her if she was okay to which she replied, “just trying to soak it all in.” It is there where we found common ground for I knew that feeling all too well.
On a warm evening where the quiet atmosphere from Shabbat spilled over to Sunday, a few hostel residents from Abraham’s Hostel in Jerusalem and I went on a desert tour through Wadi Rum on ATVs. As we made our way deeper in the valley, the lack of sharp curves didn’t keep us from nearing the edge of a couple small cliffs or just missing a stray goats unstartled by our borderline reckless driving. When we reached an end point, we parked the 4-wheelers, hiked along a small stream, and set up camp near a waterfall where we could dip our feet and wash off the dust that accumulated on our clothing. With a picnic consisting of tea and grains, we each rotated between a short swim, snacking, chatting, and exploring the shallow canyon we had come across. From 8 months traveling around the world, that was one of the most chill, fairytale evenings I had had.
When my plane landed in Istanbul once more, I let out an audible gasp. Granted I was only there for 15 hours on layover. Even though I had just been there 2 weeks prior, after a challenging trip to Israel, I was elated to be back. Istanbul quickly became one of my favorite cities, and I would spend my layover exploring with a free service offered by Turkish Airlines known as TourIstanbul. It was wonderful, I, along with a few fellow passengers, were chauffeured around the city for a day to revisit the best landmarks Istanbul has to offer. With meals, admission fees, and free time included, my day was more relaxed and enjoyable than it would’ve been spending that time in the airport. TourIstanbul is an ingenious service that I hope more airlines will adopt in the coming years.
If I saw this photo in an art gallery, I would think it was a painting. On a crisp Autumn day in Kyoto, the view was amazing from the top of the hill at Ginkakuji Temple (銀閣寺), better known as the Silver Pavilion. Wispy colors blurred together as I moved at a snail’s pace behind a line of people snapping hundreds of photos along the way. I quickly snapped this photo with my phone (edited with Instagram), and it became my favorite travel photo I’ve ever taken. As I waited for the foot traffic to clear up, I bent down and picked up a fallen red leaf to keep as a memento. Enough leaves covered the ground that I could’ve brought one home for all of my friends and family as a souvenir from Mother Nature’s artwork in Japan. I’ve never seen such vibrant, fall colors, and I dare to say it’s more impressive and diverse than cherry blossom season.
Despite the frigid cold biting every inch of uncovered skin, I spent my first evening in Busan, South Korea wandering aimlessly to get a feel for my surroundings. Up and down whatever streets I could find, I walked for about 4 hours in a daze from all the Christmas lights and curiously laughing at how the stores didn’t look so different from the ones compartmentalized in a 5-story mall back in America. Eventually, I was lost and frostbite had set in deep through my bones. However, I soon laid eyes on the Christmas tree in the middle of the shopping square, mouth agape like I had never seen something so beautiful, and my insides began to warm up again. With a mix of broken Korean and hand gestures, I asked one family to take my picture which ended up being the Wandering Souldier holiday card for 2012. Though better known for being an international port city and beachtown, Busan compensates with festive lights, outdoor entertainment, and street food stalls serving up warm snacks in the off-season.
When it comes to recommending a visit to the DMZ in Korea, I am hesitant. On one hand, it’s as close as any of us may get to seeing or visiting North Korea and learning about the Korean War and its consequences, and on the other, it is one of the most heavily commercialized tours I’ve ever been on. What is meant to be a spot for hope and prayers for reunification and a brighter future has turned into a sort of mockery of the seriousness of the division. Standing in front of this barbed wired fence decorated in prayer ribbons made me wonder how we’ve all gotten to a place where we feel like we have to build walls so tall to protect ourselves. Just what are we trying to protect and what are we afraid of? It was that very same moment, unable to see much beyond the fence, that sparked my obsessive fascination with the DPRK.
Returning to Japan from a week in South Korea, I was beat. In one day, I had taken a 3-hour train from Seoul to Busan, a 3-hour ferry ride from Busan back to Fukuoka, Japan, and a 20-minute taxi ride to my accommodation. Winter had set in, and in the ferry terminal at Busan, I was harmlessly being eyed and mildly pestered by an unkempt young man. My mind had checked out, and I had no interest in anything else but falling asleep at the hostel I booked for the night in Fukuoka. Upon arrival at the hostel, it was completely dark (no street lights) and freezing, and when I opened the door, it felt like I was intruding in on someone’s home. The atmosphere was welcoming, of course, but I hadn’t been sure I was in the right place. Luckily, I was greeted with the smiling face you see above, Akira, and all tension and unknowns quickly vanished. Fast forward to when I finally settled in and Akira approached me to take my photo for the hostel’s Facebook gallery. “On one condition,” I told him. “I want to take your picture too.” Here, I can’t help but say LOOK AT THAT SMILE! Such a stunning expression can light up the darkest day. I thanked him for his hospitality and kindness, despite my short stay, and promptly shuffled off to sleep.
From Fukuoka, I needed to head back north towards Tokyo, and I decided to take a few days in Nagano (a small city 2 hours west of Tokyo). Seven hours hopping between express trains and local trains, the scenery seemed to blur by. I was seeing but not really absorbing. On the last stretch from Nagoya into Nagano, we passed through a small section of the Japanese Alps. Though the trees were past their Autumn prime, the view of the mountains more than made up for it. The holidays hadn’t come yet, but I felt like I was riding through a scene in a Christmas movie. When I posted this photo to Instagram, the company I worked with to earn a free JR Pass, came across it and featured it on their Facebook page. A breathtaking site and a photo to be enjoyed by many, it was indeed.
“Tonight, we’re going to a koto (琴 – Japanese harp) performance. Bring a coat.” I had just checked into the hostel in Nikko, Japan when my plans of exploring on foot by night abruptly changed directions. Two young ladies who worked at the hostel invited me along and said we would be driving to the venue. Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed so quickly, for all I knew I could’ve been swept up in the easiest kidnapping, but whatever was bound to happen, I was up for the adventure. Worries soon evaporated when I entered a small room covered in cushions where we, along with four other random guests sat on our knees for two hours, enjoying the lullabies emanating from the harp. It was such a beautiful, simple, and all too short evening where I couldn’t have felt more grateful and in awe of what my life had become in that moment. In retrospect, the performance was one of the more spontaneous decisions made on my trip, and a memory of which I am most fond.
Among many famous landmarks I learned about in school, I thought it would be really cool to visit The Great Wall of China one day, but at a young age, I felt it wasn’t even in the realm of possibilities. 7-8 years out of high school, there I was making my way along a 6km, 22 tower stretch of the Great Wall, moseying along to baby a fresh head cold and rising fever. Every 10ft. or so, I’d stop to try and make sense of it all, staring out across the horizon where the topography didn’t vary much from one viewpoint to the next. Despite not feeling 100%, when I reached the final tower we were allowed to explore, I wanted to keep going. 2 hours had felt like 2 minutes. I sat down to let the sun warm my face and calm my heartbeat. At one point, I looked up and said to myself, “if I waved right now and someone were looking down on me from space, would they be able to see me? Would it look as much like a snake slithering through the mountains as it does down here on Earth?” Maybe I’ll never know the answer. Traveling to outer space doesn’t seem plausible. Then again, all those years ago, neither did climbing the Great Wall of China…
Though I had mixed feelings about my trip to Italy last August, I couldn’t argue with the Venice sunset on my last day in the country. My mother who had accompanied me on the trip, and I had just made our way back to our hotel from Piazza San Marco. Through a maze of back alleys and small public squares, we meandered as the night was cooling down and stopped for dessert, tiramisu for me and an apple strudel for her. We sat on the edge of a quiet section of the canal, enjoying our respective sweets, and watching the gondolas calmly bounce on the water. To accompany the coin I tossed into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, I snapped this “Goodnight Venice” photo as a second wish that I will visit Italy again on my own one day.
Come summertime, Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia may look like a chaotic scene out of a Billabong catalog. In the off season, however, it simply looks like an abandoned summer setting without beach-goers to breathe new life into the place. One chilly, drizzly afternoon, my friend Hannah and I took the ferry over for a leisurely stroll, casual chitchat, and lunch. Having taken few photos since my arrival in Sydney, I figured I should break out the camera to remedy that, but of what I had to ask myself. Well, a newly developed, bad habit of mine is taking pictures of people when they’re asleep or not looking, therefore this pair of friends made for the next best target. Occasionally, a photograph needs a bold action to evoke a strong emotion, but in this case, the elements of solitude and serenity in this photo are what strike a chord with me.