Berlin.

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“The Wave,” an off the beaten path hike at Coyote Buttes near the border of Utah and Arizona.

The last time I had written I had just returned to New York, and was reflecting on my time backpacking for more than half the year. I now write to you at the eleventh hour, again. I am leaving New York, but it won’t be a temporary adventure this time around. For the first time in my life I truly have no return date. I’m moving to the European continent to start a new phase of my life in Berlin, Germany.

My adventures didn’t end when I came back to the United States. In fact, I had a very busy summer, one of the busiest in recent years. After landing in New York I had some of June and the month of July to reconnect with my family and friends and with my beloved city before heading back to south america, where my mother, stepfather, stepbrother and I made a family trip to the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It was a bucket-list moment to be able to watch the opening ceremony live at Maracanã Stadium, and to attend a variety of Olympic games in the days after the opening. Although chaotic as expected, it was truly incredible to see the world come together in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. While I was in Brasil I made a last-minute surprise trip to see my family in Recife, and to see my cousin’s newborn baby. Even though I had just seen my family in February, I knew I couldn’t exactly say when it would be the next time that I would return to visit them.

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Opening Ceremony for the Summer Olympic Games in Rio.
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My mother and I at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the venue hosting the rowing matches during the Olympics.
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View from the Sugarloaf Mountain, overlooking Rio’s famous skyline.
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At the Opening Ceremony in Maracanã Stadium.

I was in New York less than a week before I found myself exploring the exotic landscapes of the USA. I took a road trip to California, Utah, and Arizona, where I realized I needn’t even leave my own country to immerse myself in hikers’ paradise. However exotic it may be to see vast, contrasting landscapes in places as Bolivia, Brasil, and Argentina, the beauty of the north american southwest and west coast rivals that of its south and central american counterparts. Five thousand miles on the road, more than 90 miles of hiking, and a busy three weeks visiting Sonoma Valley, Big Sur, Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, and Sequoia National Park in California, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and Arches National Park in Utah, and the Grand Canyon, Page, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and Antelope Canyon in Arizona, along with a one-night stop in Las Vegas. I felt so fortunate to have been able to take the time to visit the USA’s National Parks and to intensify my relationship with the outdoors. If I have a moment I will try and write a post about how to conquer the “American Road Trip,” an adventure markedly different from that of a nomadic backpacker, yet in a similar vein a time of personal growth and a test of physical and mental strength.

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16 mile hike to “Cloud’s Rest” at Yosemite National Park, California.
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Arches National Park, Utah.
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Camping at Lake Tahoe, California.
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Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona.
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Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona.
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Bryce National Park, Utah.
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View from Observation Point, a 6 mile hike at Zion National Park, Utah.

I’ve neglected to mention one last piece to the puzzle that would explain with whom I was traveling with in various parts of south america, and who it was that came with me on my road trip on the west coast. Andy, the English backpacker who agreed to travel in northern Peru with me seven months ago, became more than just my travel partner. He and I are now dating, and it seems we couldn’t shirk that traveling spirit once he and I returned home to our respective countries. We decided to take the road trip together so that he could also visit the United States for the first time, and because frankly it wasn’t easy going from spending day-in and day-out traveling together to living in very different time zones. He is back in England now, and we’re both happy that in light of my upcoming move we will at least be a much shorter, 2 hour flight away from one another.

So where did Germany come from? In some older posts I had mentioned that I was considering going to graduate school and living in Berlin as early as the days when  backpacking in Bolivia in late March. After applying for and getting accepted to a graduate program in Berlin, I knew I was headed for Europe within the year. But I felt called to moving sooner than September 2017. I wanted to start working beforehand to settle into the city I would call home for an indeterminate amount of time. And in the back of my mind I also knew that if I began working within Berlin’s startup scene, I would have the opportunity to become more involved with the tech community there, and to then be able to lay out all my options on the table and make a more educated decision about what my next step should be.

Hustle: the best word to describe my two months spent this fall after returning from the west coast. And indeed I had been hustling, with a daily commitment to studying for my GRE exams, applying for jobs, and seeking out as many connections in Berlin as I could. People did have their doubts; I was told that I didn’t have much of a chance to find my dream job, and that I should expect to wait tables when I arrived. After all, I don’t speak a word of German, I don’t have EU citizenship, and there aren’t enough jobs in Berlin even for Germans. But I didn’t let any of those things deter me. I kept at it, and the initial hurdle gave way to one opportunity after another. It still amazes me how almost overnight, with a flip of a switch I became not just one of many job applicants but a singular, highly desired applicant. I was shown that with hard work, unwavering dedication, and not giving up truly paves the way for exactly what is supposed to happen, when it’s supposed to happen.

And now, just one day shy of exactly five months after returning to New York from Tulum, I’m getting on a plane once again. It took me some time to get my things together, as I knew I couldn’t pack with the mentality of a backpacker anymore. I was really moving, and I needed clothes that functioned in the real world and in the extreme cold. I spent hours ridding myself of years of personal belongings that have outlived its purpose. I said my metaphorical goodbyes to childhood treasures and keepsakes, and placing those items I wanted to keep in their proper places in my room. As I write this, I notice that my bedroom finally looks like home; I have yet to understand why it has to be right now, when I am ready to leave, that my room has become its most welcoming, its most authentically me. After all the mental and physical purging, I condensed my future life into one large suitcase and two carry-on suitcases, plus a small backpack to hold my computer.

Yes, this new phase of my life is scary and stressful and nerve-wracking. But in a good way. I’m about to jump head-first into a completely new urban cultural and artistic center, whose people will be chatting away in a language I don’t speak, in a country I’ve never lived in before, on a continent I’ve only lived in previously for a total of six months. I hope that Berlin will accept me in the same ways that New York has embraced me. I hope in the not so distant future that I will be able to comfortably call Europe home in the same way that I’ve called the USA home for almost my entire life. Only time will tell; as of now, I have no expectations and no timeline. Traveling has always tried to bring me back to the present and has nudged me to live in the moment. In many ways this will be a great way to put this practice to the test, in the real-world, and with more permanence. I’ll be given the chance to begin at zero. And without the vestiges of New York to find its way into the fabric of my daily routine, as it had done so each time I came home from traveling, in the truest sense of the phrase, I have a fresh start.

It’s overwhelming and amazing, as in this photo of me standing below the world’s tallest trees, in Sequoia National Park, but at the same time I wouldn’t want life to be any other way.

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New York.

Arrival.

What began in my head was a two and a half month trip to Colombia and Patagonia, in Argentina and Chile. I would return home in late February to begin my job search in New York City, and return to life as it had been before. But that didn’t happen. The year 2016 became a six and a half month adventure through twelve countries in South America, North America, and the Central Caribbean.

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Saying goodbye to New York! My first photo.

People ask me what was the highlight of my trip, and I have trouble answering this. I suppose I’d have to categorize my favorite places by their best features, whether it be the culture, food, dance, the interactions I had with the local people, the times I had absorbed the beauty of the physical landscape, or the types of adventures I had with certain people. I often reply in terms of sheer beauty of Patagonia in Chile and Argentina, and the salt desert in Uyuni, Bolivia, were the most incredible. In terms of all around nightlife, sights, and culture, I enjoyed my time in Colombia the most. Iquitos, Peru and the surrounding Amazonian rainforest were the most insightful in terms of the environmental ephemerality of our world. The sunsets were endless, and I experienced the best ones in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Jericoacoara, Brasil, or Mancora, Peru. I saw more monkeys and other wildlife in the jungle regions of Costa Rica than anyplace else on my trip. I tested my physical limits in Antigua, Guatemala and I went through emotional roller coasters in Ecuador. Cuba shocked me to my core, but in a good way.

All the places I traveled to for 6.5 months.
All the places I traveled to during my 6.5 months abroad.

So what happened exactly? What comes to mind first is what my body went through in these months. I shattered my gut, at times having no choice but to eating food that I knew just didn’t sit well with me (and only truly feeling better once I returned home). I was hospitalized once from a bad experience with food. I had variety of infections, a skin fungus, sunburns, scabies, mosquito bites that at one point required a half a tube of cortisone a day to alleviate the itching, mosquito bites that turned into massive bruises, and a right knee injury that stayed with me from the time I hurt myself in December until now.

A backpacker can take a lot of discomfort, and traveling can give us an incredible amount of perspective, especially when coming upon certain luxuries that some people take for granted in their daily lives. I learned to carry toilet paper with me wherever I went for the basic reason that toilet paper is a necessity in bathroom use throughout much of the world. I learned to “use the toilet” in a variety of places: in a hostel, an outhouse, a hole in the ground, or on any given patch of grass or behind a rock. There were times when I slept in a bed at a hostel, sharing a room with 2 people to at most 14 people. But I also slept in a tent, a hammock, on a couch, in a closet, on the beach, on the floor, or in a bus. Sometimes where I slept it was too cold, sometimes it was too hot. I slept at altitudes ranging from sea level to 4500 meters above sea level. I rode shared small gypsey busses for durations ranging from 5 minutes to 12 hours. I slept in long haul busses, at the longest for 23 hours in one time and in seats ranging from the lowest economic quality to a decent 140 degree incline, and even once in a luxury 180 degree lie-flat seat. II spent 4 days without showering. A cockroach lived in my bag for a couple of days without my knowledge. Sometimes electricity was not in the day’s itinerary. Wifi was a gift, one that at times was malfunctioning but highly appreciated when available. And of course one cannot go traveling that long without any experiences with theft; I had my money and belongings stolen twice, once in Peru and the other time in Ecuador.

What did I learn? Well, I made a lot of travelers’ mistakes. I learned that in long-term travel, it is not advisable to book anything in advance, past the next 3-4 days. You never know where you’ll end up, or if you’ll want to stay a day or two longer in a particular place. This goes for plane tickets, hostel reservations, bus tickets,and short, 1-3 tour bookings. Speaking of tours, I learned that group tours for long periods of time are not for me. In fact, it was one of the few regrets I had during my trip, not having explored Patagonia on my own, the way I saw the rest of South America. I learned that I had overpacked medications for every possible scenario: unless you have a prescription medication you’ll need to take every day, most likely all medications will be available at a local pharmacy. And I found that they were far cheaper there than anywhere in the United States and Europe. For example, malaria pills are not only really inexpensive in South America, they also don’t require a prescription. I was also much too cautious about the potential altitude sickness I would have arriving in Bolivia, and so I started taking Diamox right away, which ended up doing more harm than good for me. Just simply resting, taking it slow, sleeping at a decent hour, eating well, and drinking lots of water are all you’ll need to prevent altitude sickness. One mistake I didn’t make was overpack.  I used all of what I had packed (here is my post on what exactly came with me in my backpack). Although I only had clothes for cooler climates, so I ended up throwing away some of those while I was in Brasil and buying more clothes fit for summer, for I knew I would be making my way up the continent by the end of my trip.

Yet all these illnesses, mistakes, and general discomforts combined are all still a minor piece of the totality of my travel experience. Because what, really, did I do? I danced salsa in Havana and tango in Buenos Aires. I bathed in the miraculous volcanic hotsprings in Baños. I partied with the locals in Montevideo. I hiked up a snowy, active volcano in Pucón. I saw the witches market in La Paz. I scuba dived in the cenotes of the Caribbean coast of Tulum. I surfed in Manuel Antonio. I went paragliding in Medellin. I danced in the famous Sambódromo for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. I visited the ancient Mayan ruins in Tikal. I witnessed extreme geographical diversity as I hiked to a glacial lake in the high mountains of Huaraz and sand boarded in the hot desert of Huacachina, all within 36 hours.

This is what I did, plus a whole lot more.

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Volcan Villarrica in Pucon, Chile.
Waterfall hike near Montezuma, also on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Waterfall in Montezuma, Costa Rica.
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Paragliding in Medellin, Colombia.
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Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina.
At the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, for Carnaval.
At the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, for Carnaval.
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Sunset in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
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Huacachina, Peru.
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Treetop swinging in Banos, Ecuador.
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Acatenango Volcano, Guatemala.
Havana, Cuba.
Havana, Cuba.
Diving through the Casa Cenote, one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Casa Cenote, Mexico.
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Uyuni Desert, Bolivia.

It truly amazes me how little I expected my travels to turn out the way they did. The turn of events and the expectations I had have shown me that each choice I made, whether they were as small as what time to move on to my destination or as impactful as deciding to continue traveling, have led me to where I am sitting right now, at this very moment, typing this post.

As I reflect on my journey I see that today it’s been 1 month and 19 days since I’ve returned home. I purposefully took this amount of time before writing anything, as I’ve decided to fully integrate myself back into living here, and to be careful not to make any judgements about myself and my surroundings until I’ve fully settled. Truth is, I can’t possibly feel fully settled; although I’ve recently returned home, I’m in a state of transition. I know that at some point in the next year I will be moving to Europe, more specifically to Berlin, to go to graduate school. I’m not living in my old home in Manhattan anymore; I’ve moved back to my mother’s house on Long Island. It’s a transition into living under someone’s roof again, and with that comes a balance of learning to keep your own space while also respecting the rules of someone else’s home. And without that freedom or that mobility of city-life, I am physically and mentally forced to take a step back, slow down, and not put myself through any pressures of being everywhere at all times.

I was lucky to have a beautiful reintroduction to New York City, with an evening flight from Cancun where outside my window I saw lightning storms, a gorgeous sunset, and a view of the Manhattan skyline. I immediately burst to tears when the plane touched down; it was as if I was holding back all my emotions until the moment when my arrival was physically real and final. I remembered when I landed at JFK in January of 2015 after traveling to Southeast Asia, when I couldn’t hold back my tears at knowing I had come back too soon, pulled back before I felt complete. But this time, I think I cried because I knew it would be quite some time before I would have the opportunity to travel long-term again. I was overwhelmed with knowing that I was going to start, at a fairly fast pace, a new phase of my life, and one that wouldn’t keep me in the United States much longer. True, I would be traveling someplace else in the near future, but in a different sort of way. And despite the sadness, I also felt a release of that past phase. It was an emotional shedding of the old and an acceptance of the unknown future.

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Views from my flight coming back to New York.

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When I first saw the New York City skyline from the car a few days after settling back in Long Island, the hairs on my arms raised and I felt goosebumps across my skin. New York truly is a beautiful city. And the first stop I made was to my old apartment in Battery Park City to pick up a few things I left there. I greeted my roommate and stepped inside; that moment was entirely surreal to me. Nothing had changed. I walked over to my window, watching the sun setting over Jersey City, the Hudson River reflecting the pink glow in the sky, the piers dotted with mega yachts and people running and biking along the boardwalk. I smiled as I remembered my time spent in the apartment, and the knowledge that I couldn’t move back did tug at me. I felt for one moment the desire to sit on my bed and say, “Okay, living with you seemed like fun mom, but, I think I’m going to go and find a job tomorrow and start living here again. See you later!” But that moment passed. Because as much I tried to feel like I was home again, I couldn’t. It felt incredible to go back and see just how much I made my life in New York, in that apartment, my home. But I was a visitor now, and if I had to go back in time and choose whether I would go on this journey for as long as I did, or remain in my apartment as a local, I would do exactly what I had done ten times over again.

That was at the end of June. And now it’s early August, and I am getting ready to leave the country yet again, this time to Brasil for the Olympic Games in Rio. This time not as a solo backpacker, rather with my family on a vacation that was planned nearly two years ago. Just a week ago, I was sitting outside in my backyard reading a copy of E.B. White’s famous essay, Here is New York. Interestingly I had the book sitting in my room for over four months before I even left the country in December, and yet I only picked it up now to read for the first time. At after each and every page I wanted to put the book down, get someone’s attention and cry out, “How has no one ever made me read this before!” It made one thousand percent sense to me, what E.B. White had written. And even more so being that he wrote his reflections on New York City (namely Manhattan) from the perspective of an outsider, someone who had gone to the city young and bright-eyed, lived life to its fullest there, and has since left the craze for a quieter, more comfortable life in the country. I was amazed that what he wrote can describe the city right at this very moment, even though it was written in the summer of 1948, as he describes it as both “changeless yet changing.” It’s interesting to me that I found myself reading this after deciding to formally leave New York and after deciding to try living in Europe for some time. I think that if I read this essay when I first purchased the book, while living in that apartment in Battery Park City, I wouldn’t have felt the same connection with White as I do now. Because now I guess you could say I am an outsider, too. And with a whole bucket list of experiences to back me up, from not only my time in South America but from all my travels since I was a child, I am absolutely ready for what’s next.

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Hang-gliding in Rio de Janeiro.