The Lessons I’ve Learned as a Traveler
A little while ago, we had a blog post about How Travel Makes You a Better Writer and since we are professional writers, you would think we have traveled a fair amount. In this article, we will explore some of the lessons Nakita has learned about writing while going on a tour of all the places she has visited so far.
Paris: Always keep your wits about you. Shortly after I turned 18 years old, I booked a flight to Paris on a discount airline and announced to my family that I would be going away for six weeks. Being an overprotective Italian famiglia, they didn’t take this too well, but knowing me, they let me go. It was a bit of a learning curve for me the whole way through from figuring out where my hostel was, to getting lost in the Jardin des Tuileries, from having a dirty old man named Maurice literally French kiss me in the trees. Whether it was admiring the art or the beauty of this world-class city, Paris is all about keeping you on your toes. I went again the following year with a dear friend of mine, Carrie. Between laundry detergent exploding in her luggage the instant we arrived, episodes of urinating in the street, and endless marriage proposals from the Algerians selling wine under La Tour Eiffel, Paris hadn’t changed much. One particular instance that stands out is a young fellow named Taoufek following us back to our hotel, begging for our phone number. I scanned the street and spotted a number on the window of a nearby hairsalon. I’m sure he was surprised the next day. Poor guy.
Krakow: Always leave room for the element of surprise. I have been to this beautiful Polish city three times in my life. The first time was just after I had been in Paris and I was traveling there for historical purposes – to go visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. Little did I know how beautiful and brilliant the city would be – amazing, generous people, brilliant food, classic sights. Krakow has an incredible charm to it that I hadn’t really been expecting. And the deep appreciation that people from Krakow have for good jazz music meant that I was listening to some of the best tunes I had heard in awhile, almost everywhere I went. When I went back to Paris the following year, I also went back to Krakow. I just couldn’t stay away from that place. Kebabs the size of your head, Chopin being played in the streets; it was all too much. I went there again in January 2010 – visiting the winter was very different and I arrived on a whim for the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The ceremony was bizarre and somber, and since I was in a psychologically dark place, the whole experience was quite void of the light and merriment I normally associate with Krakow. I will go back soon to rectify this.
Greece: Always go to the doctor. After the second Paris, Krakow trip, I ended up in Greece, visiting Athens and Crete. Unfortunately, I had contracted an infection in Poland that I subsequently ignored and in the small town of Rethymnon on Crete, it caught up with me. Turns out you should always, always get antibiotics for a UTI or else, like it did for me, it will turn into a kidney infection and you will be hospitalized for three days with a doctor who wears flip flops and smokes cigarettes in a nasty wifebeater while he does your ultrasound. Other than nearly dying, Greece was amazing. This was in 2006 before the collapse of everything holy and sacred, where you could still buy tiropita on every street corner and the best meal you’ve ever had was chicken and potatoes in an unmarked, hole-in-the-wall in the port of Athens. Listening to Bouzkouki music outside under the infinite stars – a sight to behold which makes the current crisis and destruction of the country all the more heartbreaking.
Mexico: Never wear your glasses in the ocean OR when in doubt, add salsa. I’ve been to Mexico twice – Puerto Vallarta and Cancun – and had positive experiences both times. Unfortunately, the first day my family and I had arrived in Puerto Vallarta at our hotel, I decided to go body-surfing in the ocean and (like a dum-dum) left my only pair of glasses on my face. Little do most of you know, I’m nearly blind and I’m also petrified of birds so imagining my fear when a pelican was drifting towards me in-between waves. I was so distracted by it that I missed the giant wave coming at me until it slammed into my face, knocking my glasses into the swirling abyss, never to be found again. I was a screaming hot mess coming out of that ocean, sobbing like a madwoman. Luckily, my father has the same prescription as me and I got the joy of wearing his prescription sunglasses at night and his over-sized dad glasses during the day. Sexy stuff people. Did I mention that I was fourteen and bald because I had recently shaved my head to raise money for cancer? Oh Lord. The best parts of Mexico are its warm people, its beautiful landscapes and its unbelievable food. I would have to say that if someone held a gun to my head and made me pick a favourite world cuisine, Mexican would be it. (Although Lebanese is a close second).
Dominican Republic: Never keep your mouth shut. My dad lives in the Dominican Republic so it was only a matter of time before I made it out to this beautiful island country to visit him and his wife. The DR is a place of paradoxes and disparities. Rich gringos live the life behind walled compounds guarded by locals holding large rifles while illegal Haitians chisel out a meager living while being exploited by their Dominican bosses. The deep blue of the water at the soft-sand beaches is almost enough to make you forget the crippling poverty that envelopes the country and looks like paradise to its Haitian neighbor to the west. There are a lot of things I could write about my experience in the DR but what takes the cake was being invited to a lunch with a group of my dad’s colleagues in an affluent home and meeting a man who earned the title of the most self-righteous, racist, jack@$$ I have ever met. In the course of half a meal, he outed himself as a pompous Brit, hell-bent on proving to me that Dominicans are allergic to work and that something is wrong with their “blood”. Most people might smile and nod, not wanting to rock the boat with their dad’s business partner, but I’m not most people. Obviously, I outed him for the khemar (Arabic for donkey) that he is and promptly left the dining table to sit in the car. I couldn’t even stand the sight of this guy and regret nothing in leaving our host’s home to get away from him. Gringos! Bah!
Salt Lake City, Utah: Trust yourself and take the time to feel your spirit. I went to Utah to be trained for my work in the nutrition field on a special medical device that measures inflammation in the body’s meridians. I certainly didn’t expect to have something verging on a religious experience. In case you didn’t know it, Salt Lake City is the Mecca of ‘Muricas Mormons (or Latter Day Saints as they prefer to be called). Walking around Temple Square talking to missionaries about their religion all day was deeply interesting to me. They were so open to my posing challenging (but respectful) questions (constantly), I could hardly believe it. It’s easily the cleanest city I have ever visited and I have yet to feel a sense of peace and stillness anywhere else as I did there. My cousin was living there at the time and when I asked her why everything was so calm and peaceful all the time, she replied that it was “Spirit”. There are a number of ways that one can quantify what I felt there- biologically, psychologically, socially, etc. However, I prefer to think of that journey as part of my personal evolution when I started to trust myself more and feel that stillness. As a convert to Islam, a lot of people are surprised to find that Latter Day Saints had a hand in my conversion to being a Muslim, but they did and I’m forever grateful for that.
London: Don’t order the Chinese food. I’ve been to London twice for very short periods both times. The second time was after the Rethymnon hospitalization incident so London is a bit of a blur for me. All I really remember is that my hostel had about 4 inches of room around the perimeter of the bed for “walking” around and that I ordered chicken fried rice at a small Chinese joint and it cost £18. That is 36 dollars, people. For rice, oil and a couple scraps of chicken. I couldn’t wait to leave the UK.
Italy: Fall in love and relish your family’s history. It is impossible for me to encapsulate Italy in a tiny paragraph on a blog full of other places to talk about. My experiences there have been so rich and life-changing that doing it justice is an impossibility. The first time I went to Italy, I explored the boot with my cousin Michele, visiting every city we could and hunting Carravaggios and Berninis in the chapels and museums of our beloved homeland. It was also the trip where I met my husband Bassam who had been living and working in Firenze for ten years. A year after the moon hit my eye like a big pizza pie at the sight of his nose, I lived there with him for a month. It was easily one of the best months of my life as it was Ramadan and I had unfettered access to an English language bookstore where I could read to my heart’s content (when I wasn’t sketching or jogging!). Later, I was also able to visit the land my family came from in Calabria, staying in the house my grandmother grew up in and waking up to the orchards of the Maione hills every morning. La dolce vita.
Morocco: The number of lessons I have learned from living a cumulative three years in Morocco as far too many to list here, let alone sum up in one cutesy subheading. I lived, loved and almost died in this country. Its people have entered my heart; its food has moistened my veins; its sounds have long echoed in my ears. My daughter was born there and, I have had some brilliant memories as well as the darkest moments of my life in the Maghreb. I built a primary school in a rural village there with my husband and now, my academic research is devoted to pedagogy of the Holocaust among Moroccan Muslims. For this, it will always be part of my history and likely my future as well. I learned independence and a strength I didn’t know I had – overcoming the most overwhelming of obstacles to rise and thrive another day.
Where have you been and what have you learned?