How I Travel: A Reflection

On Sunday, August 18, I had to report back to work. My flight arrived at 4am, and I was home from the airport around 5am, but after spending the past 26 hours on planes and in airports— getting intermittent sleep across eight time zones—I wasn’t ready to shut my eyes. So, I bided my time by unpacking my bags, sorting the gifts I brought back with me, and placing the souvenir magnets from the various locales that I visited over the past five weeks on my refrigerator. 

A Guinness magnet from Dublin. A carved wooden dove from Sao Paulo. A set of painted ceramic tiles of favela steps from Rio de Janeiro. The route of the Clear Creek in Colorado burned onto the concentric rings of a cross-section of wood. New mementos of my travels to add to the growing collection on the door of my refrigerator.

Around 8am, I made my way to campus; I was alert but with a weariness lingering inside of me, waiting to plunge me into exhaustion like the dunk tank at a carnival. Still, I completed the mandatory sign-in procedures at work and chatted with my colleagues. Handshakes, hugs, good-to-see-yous, and travel queries were excitedly exchanged. This summer the break was 12 weeks long, and the instructors who did not teach for six weeks during the summer semester, like me, had more time to return to their home country and visit another country or two or three before the end of the break.

Even though some of my colleagues had more exotic adventures, like visiting an active volcano on a remote island or getting married in a tropical country, several colleagues expressed amazement regarding the travel that I was able to squeeze into my six free weeks during the summer break: first, I took a trip to Taiwan during Eid al-Fitr; and then, once my grades had been finalized, I did a layover in Dublin, spent a week in the US, flew down to Brazil for 10 days, and then took my boys to Colorado for a week before returning to Doha. 

Wow, Conan, quite the whirlwind! How did you do it all? It was nothing. Really? You did so much. You should do a presentation on how you travel. How about I just write about how I pulled everything off? Sounds good. I will eagerly await your advice.

At first, I thought my advice would simply be a list of resources that I use to organize and assist with my travels. However, upon reflection, I forgot that my forte is organization. Many people don’t organize all aspects of their lives as fastidiously as I do (so I have been told). In addition, I value calmness, which is probably the chicken or the egg to my organizational abilities. I try to approach problems or challenges in a coolheaded manner. Lastly, I am excited maybe even drawn to the exotic or otherness. Growing up multiracial in the US and living in Doha for two years (with 85% of its population from other countries) has made me comfortable with new places, cultures, and encounters. These are important aspects of my personality that makes me better suited for travel. 

Aside from my personal qualities, there are political factors that affect my ability to travel. Being a 5’10” able-bodied male with a serious demeanor and an indeterminate racial appearance who speaks English, possesses an American passport, and has access to cash and credit in two stable world currencies makes it easier for me to travel the way I do. This summer, in order to get from La Crosse, WI to the O’Hare Airport outside of Chicago, IL, I had to ride the Empire Builder railroad for five hours. I found the train ride to be peaceful and relaxing. When I shared my train ride perspective with a female friend of mine, she remarked that she didn’t always enjoy the experience because of the unwanted male “friends” that she would sometimes make when riding the train alone.

Train station in Dublin

So, with the personal and political caveats out of the way, what do I do in order to travel the way I do?

Figure out where I’d like to go in advance

At the beginning of the school year, I block out all the vacation breaks in my Outlook calendar. Then I make a list in Google Keep of possible countries that I could visit during those breaks. I will also use Google Flight to investigate ticket prices and track potential flights. Once I have an idea of my options, I do some research to decide if it is a good time to visit each country during the dates that I have selected.

Buy my plane tickets and book my lodgings

Before the plane ticket prices become too costly, I purchase my tickets. Google Flight does a relatively good job of providing the least expensive options, but it doesn’t hurt to check Expedia and Travelocity for prices. Once I have purchased my tickets, I investigate Airbnb lodging options. Usually I look for cheap rooms in good locations where I can explore interesting sights on foot. When I visited Dublin this summer, my lodging was basically a room with WiFi near Temple Bar, a hub of activity in the city. 

Come up with a list of things I’d like to see or do

After I have booked plane tickets and lodging, I start to generate a list of things I’d like to see or do while visiting the country. If I am visiting more than one city or country during my trip, like when I visited Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro this summer, I created a basic schedule to account for travel days and research my options. However, even with a schedule, I try to keep my options in list form. I sometimes don’t know what I will see during a trip until I am in the country or until I wake up on a given day.

Be receptive to the recommendations of colleagues and locals

One of the benefits of working in a department with 114 instructors from over 30 countries who are active travelers is that invariably someone has visited the country that I am planning to visit. In everyday conversations around a vending machine or the copier, I can gain helpful recommendations or tips from my more traveled co-workers. For example, I would never have known to visit Wadi Shab in Oman if a co-worker didn’t rave about it. Also, I would not have known to book a driver in Sri Lanka if a friend didn’t warn me against driving there. Besides the knowledge of my colleagues, my Airbnb hosts and former students have been helpful in pointing things out to me when visiting their country. And when it comes to eating, I usually check Yelp to see what the best dining options are in my vicinity. 

Travel light

After traveling internationally on a regular basis for the past two years, I have a good sense of what I need to bring with me. Plus, I have a versatile collection of luggage that allows me pack in different ways. If I am staying at an Airbnb, the listing indicates if there is a washer and dryer. This means I can pack less clothing and wash what I bring with me. And, if I do forget something extremely important, I can always buy that item in country. When I think about it, I only need my passport, wallet, phone, and clothes on my back; everything else is optional.

Treat travel as a problem-solving opportunity

International travel can be daunting for some people, especially the prospect of visiting a developing country with an unfamiliar language. I always do my best to investigate the logistics of my trips ahead of time, but there will always be things that I can’t plan for, like the weather or getting lost. However, as I have traveled more and more, I have become ok with the unknowns and welcome these problem-solving opportunities as long as the stakes aren’t too dire. Most of the time, all I need to do is find a coffee shop with WiFi, order a drink, sit down, and do the necessary research on my laptop or phone.

Be grateful for the experience

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was a young father working low-paying jobs, trying to make ends meet. I didn’t have the opportunity or the means to travel. Sometimes I would get so depressed that I would hop in my car and just drive around the town hoping that there would be something new for me to discover. There never was, and eventually I would dejectedly make my way back home.

This summer, I thought about that dark period of my life while I was snorkeling in Taiwan, while I was walking the Howth Summit outside of Dublin, while I was gazing at the Southern Cross from a hammock in Rio de Janiero, and while my sons and I were whitewater rafting in Colorado. Thankfully, I have lived long enough to improve my situation and have the ability to travel by myself—and sometimes with others. Each magnet that I bring back with me is a reminder of the wealth that I continue to accumulate with each country that I visit and the experiences I collect there. I have grown rich in this manner, and I am grateful for these blessings.

Parque Large Mansion in Rio de Janeiro

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