I’ve always had the travel bug. I remember dreaming about far-away places at an early age. On my sixth birthday, I got a children’s atlas with maps, photos, and illustrations of diverse flora and fauna. I would sit with my back to the corner of my living room spending hours absorbing the pictures and descriptions of different countries.
When I was in fifth grade, I got my first opportunity to travel with a mission group for kids. We went to Kake, Alaska and volunteered at a local church. We watched black bears from afar, salmon teeming in streams, and played with the children living in the native village. This is what made me fall head-over-heels in love with Alaska. Instead of quenching my thirst for travel, this trip only fueled me with more wanderlust.
In high school, I took a trip to Managua, Nicaragua with another church group. We ate copious amounts of gallo pinto and snacked on fried bananas in the sun. We also took a trip to a local trash dump where bare-footed children scampered over mounds of plastic food wrappers and broken bottles looking to collect salvageable pieces to sell at the market. I made friends with sweet, old, wrinkled dishwashers who freely offered me personal belongings they couldn’t afford to lose.
After high school, I took my first trip to Europe with a friend. We packed our Rick Steves travel backpacks with the bare necessities and hit the continent with Eurail passes and eager minds. We slept in bed bug infested Dutch hostels, bought German pastries in open air markets, window shopped on the cobblestone streets of Prague, and suntanned on the rocky shores of Šibenik. The most noteworthy moments of the trip for me, though, were the nights spent drinking beer with my great uncles in Berlin and eating calamari in the warm Croatian evening air with my elder relatives.
In college, I got the opportunity to visit a bush village in Kenya. My step-father’s brother-in-law (try to follow that!), Peter Kithene, opened a clinic called Mama Maria in his hometown. A team of eight of us ventured out together to visit and volunteer at the little hospital. After spending an entire day driving the uneven roads of the Great Rift Valley, we arrived in the small village of Muhuru Bay. We were constantly followed by half-naked children, ate ugali with village elders at a funeral, spent time with two albino girls who had fled from Tanzania, and made trades with Masai warriors.
I made my second trip to Europe with Tyler, my husband (and then-boyfriend), in 2010. We visited Germany, France, and Spain. After visiting my uncles in Berlin again, we spent some time Couchsurfing in France. With our hosts, we went out to quirky bars, ate breakfasts of baguettes dipped in chocolate milk, and had long discussions while cruising the streets around the Moulin Rouge. After Paris, we ventured to the small town of Bellver de Cerdanya in Catalonia (Spain). Set against watercolor sunrises and melting sunsets, we rode horses with flamboyant guides and got lifts in the back of Spanish strangers’ pickups.
Tyler and I were married in July 2012 and honeymooned in breathtaking Bali. Bali is so beautiful and fresh in my memory that condensing the trip into just a few sentences really pains me. I could write and write about the chatty taxi drivers, the friendly locals, the vibrantly colored fish, the Barong dance, banana juice from beachside warungs, and so on. Suffice it to say, hearing traditional Balinese music now is so evocative that it literally brings me to tears. Time spent with my husband and with the kind, eccentric individuals we met in Candidasa and Ubud are times I will never forget.
And finally, here I am in Busan, South Korea. Busan, the second-largest city in the country, is bustling and never sleeps. Temples and pagodas dot the mountainsides and relics of poor, harder times dressed in Buddhist robes walk the streets with permanently arched backs. Korean barbecue wafts from tables littered with soju bottles in every alley. Cell phones, high heels, hiking gear, and hangovers characterize this city of 4 million.
However, this isn’t how I’ll remember Busan. I’ll remember the kind smiles of my coworkers at my middle school and the excited greetings from my students. I’ll remember the old, drunken men who stumble out of bars after midnight wanting to practice their English. I’ll remember the weekends spent with expat friends on the beach, the intense games of Scrabble, and the makgeolli infused late night discussions.
As I reflect on my travels, I realize that what I treasure is the same in every trip. I don’t characterize my experiences by the food or the history or the architecture, as delicious and grandeur as they may be. I characterize my trip by the relationships made and people involved.
This is why I am excited to go to Newhalen, Alaska. Yes, I’m excited to experience nature in its purest form, catch fresh trout for dinner, and ride four-wheelers into the abyss. However, what I’m most looking forward to are the new relationships I’ll make. I am absolutely fascinated by native Alaskan culture and want to learn everything I can about the people who are indigenous to the Bristol Bay region. Moving from a city of 4 million to a village of 200 will be quite the change, but I’m so thrilled to finally make the move to a more intimate way of life.
I’ll end by requoting one of my favorite movie lines of all time: Happiness is only real when shared. I firmly believe this with all my heart. This next year in Alaska, I’m determined to become the happiest I’ve ever been by sharing my life with as many people as I can.