I have been meaning to start this blog for nearly two years now, ever since I graduated high school. All through high school I had dreamed of traveling and seeing the world and funny things like this, but never realized that I would soon make these dreams come true.
Since entering college I have taken advantage of a myriad of study abroad, work abroad and travel opportunities. My first winter break (Dec ‘07- Jan ‘08) I spent about a month in Istanbul, Turkey learning about globalization and how Turkey fits into the whole EU puzzle. This was the first time I ever ventured off to another country without my family. I learned a lot about being independent and doing things for myself. The best thing about Istanbul was the rich history. I loved going to places I had read about like The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and feeling the energy, imagining what Sultanahmet must have been like in its hey-day. It’s a completely different level of understanding and learning when you are able to feel a place instead of just read about it and see pictures.
I came home for one very short week in which I got plane tickets and made final arrangements for going to Kenya. I spent my summer in Nairobi, Kenya doing developmental work. Through much fortitude and persistance, I found myself three internships while in Kenya where I taught math and business classes to students in a community high school (Raila Educational Centre), ran the ASK AIDS awareness program out of another public high school (Jamhuri), and created a system of accounting and a business plan for a children’s home (Stars for Jesus Children’s Home). My summer in Kenya was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I came to the land of whizzing matatus and extravagant safaris not knowing anyone, eager to “make a difference,” but I faced a many more challenges than I was ready for. At first, there was a lot of miscommunication with AIESEC, and I didn’t have any work at all. I was having an extremely difficult time adjusting to the culture and the people, and I felt incapable of connecting with anyone, leaving me very depressed and demoralized. I knew I was down and that I had to get up, so I kept my purpose in perspective and I forced myself to go out and to meet people and to forge meaningful relationships, I forced myself to go and find my own work, I pushed myself harder than I ever have to fulfill my goals. Adversity builds character and Kenya gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to build more character that I could handle. By the end of my very very short two months, I had succeeded. I felt like I was making a positive impact on local Kenyan society through my work and I was really helping the people I was interacting with. I was so accustomed to the Kenyan way of life that Kenyans would mistake me for an Asian Kenyan and speak to me in Swahili. I would respond back with the few words of Swahili that I knew and go on with my day and they would never know. This is the epitome of exchange, when you can fool the locals into thinking that you are one of them, and it is the greatest feeling on earth. Even though it was one year ago now, I still think about Kenya every single day and how much I miss it and how much its helped me develop as a strong individual.
One of the most empowering things I did in Kenya was climb Mt. Kenya. It is the tallest mountain on the equator and the most difficult trek in Africa. It was an exhausting and treacherous four day climb. Towards the top, we got to a point where our guide said it is unsafe to continue climbing. There was a lot of snow and the terrain was extremely rocky making it slippery beyond control. All 12 of the people that had made it this far agreed, but I didn’t care. I had decided long before that I will reach the top of the mountain and touch the Kenyan flag. I told the guide that I am going up whether he wants to take me or not. I trudged on, through the altitude sickness, hunger, and fatigue because I was determined to touch that flag. I must have slid and almost died at least 10 times since I separated from the group, and unfortunately the guide didn’t give me much comfort as he was tired and climbing in front of me, so he wouldn’t have been able to do anything if I fell. I made it though, and there I was, standing on top of Mt.Kenya. I could feel nothing anymore. I forgot about my altitude sickness, and the cold, and everything that was aching, and the exhaustion, nothing mattered because I was on the top. Standing up there all alone was quite humbling. The view was similar from up top as it was from the earlier point where everyone else stopped but it felt entirely different. Standing there alone made me realize how small I really am in the grand scheme of things and how seemingly insignificant I am, yet were all part of this cycle that is so much bigger than any of us could ever imagine, and each individual component is necessary in order to make the whole function properly. It sounds fundamentally simple to understand, but standing up there and feeling it in my heart and in my blood was a completely different level of understanding.
At the end of my Kenya experience, I went to Uganda with the idea of going white water rafting in the Nile and coming back to Kenya. The trip had a great start with the bus leaving 3 hours late and then breaking down in the middle of no where at 4am for about 5 hours. The total journey to Kampala, capital of Uganda, took 23 joyful hours. I ended up extending my trip with Husayn and Andrew and we ended up spending a good 10 days traveling literally all over the country. This is the first time I really traveled independently and it felt great to organize things on my own and find my own way. I developed a very thick skin for tourist gimmicks and pushed my independence even further.
When I came back to Kenya, it was the weirdest feeling; I felt comfortable, I felt at home again. Just as everything was fitting together and making sense and life was great in Kenya, my time expired. Of all the places I have been in my life, leaving Kenya was definitely the most difficult. Nevertheless, I got on that plane and headed to Singapore for my semester long study exchange program.
I quickly realized that Singapore was the complete opposite of everything Kenyan. The taxi ride home from the airport was impossibly smooth and orderly, everything was clean and efficient, and lots of rules for everything that no one dares to disobey; it was like a whole new world to me. One of the most interesting things about my first couple months in Singapore was feeling reverse culture shock in reference to Kenya instead of the US. Singapore is a very interesting place and its amazing how the country has developed from being ridden with poverty to having living standards comparable to Western Europe and the US in a mere 40 years. I learned a lot about being independent and challenged myself to penetrate societies compartments.
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) is one of the most international institutions I have ever been to. Singapore itself has Malays, Chinese, and Indians. On top of that NTU had international students from literally all over Asia, even Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Additionally, NTU was home to exchange students from all over the world from the US to Europe all the way to China. Even in such an international environment with the people most prone to being open and wanting to have cross cultural communication; in general, all the Singaporean Chinese kids hung out together, all the Malays hung out together, all the Europeans hung out together, all the Iranis hung out together, etc, and there was very little mixing of these peoples. I was always that one American/Pakistani guy sitting in the middle of 5 Malay kids trying to have a conversation about life. Singapore taught me that human nature says stick with the people you know and don’t branch out to everyone else. I realized how difficult it is to be that one guy, but I have made a conscious decision to continue doing it because I like it.
After a rough academic semester in Singapore, I had about a month before I had to be home, so I decided to pack a backpack and go explore some more of Southeast Asia. I had already done a couple of shorter trips to Malaysia and Indonesia, so I decided to head up North to Cambodia. Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor were out of this world. I was amazed by the intricate details of the temples and how could it be possible that all these temples are still standing? Even more impressive were some of the temples struggling to peacefully co-exist with mother nature who was trying to eat them up by growing massive trees that were almost becoming part of the structure of the temples.
From Cambodia I took a bus to Vietnam starting in the South in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I made my way North taking a bus upto Dalat and then Nha Trang and then Hoi An. I met some awesome Vietnamese women in Hoi An that were operating a restaurant and a tailor business. Geoff and I sat there for hours laughing and joking with the women; it was great. We went back to our hotel for a bit and then came back to the restaurant. It had started pouring rain, so we ran through the rain and it felt invigorating, I felt as if I had been reborn or something. We reached the restaurant soaking wet as they were closing up and they took us with them and their friends to go to a karaoke bar. The women were great singers and it was amazing to be able to sit there and talk with them and experience a part of Vietnam that I didn’t even know existed. From Hoi An I took a very long bus ride upto Hanoi and from there I was off Bangkok, Thailand.
Instead of going South to see all the beaches and night life, I decided to head up north to Chiang Mai and then to Pai. In Pai, I rented a motorcycle and rode off into the mountains not knowing where I was going or how I would get back. I rode through open fields and rice paddies, rolling hills, soaring mountains, and some of the most beautiful unspoiled natural beauty I have ever seen. I came back to Bangkok and spent a couple of final days in SE Asia.
I was finally going home. I had a 12 hour stopover in Seoul where I explored the city a bit, but really I just wanted to go home. After nearly eight straight months of being away from everything I knew and loved, and an amazing journey full of challenges and surprises, I was finally back. I’ll never forget the moment when I passed by the customs officer and he gave me a warm smile, looked me in the eye and said, “Welcome home!”
Over those eight months I changed more than I realized it. I learned to appreciate everything I have, and realized how I am one of the luckiest people on earth for all the opportunities I have been able to take advantage of. I gained a newfound appreciation of the good ‘ole U S of A and have since become a very proud American. The thing I love most about traveling and seeing the world is trying to understand how other people live, realizing that it is often times fundamentally different from how I live, and recognizing that this is okay because even though were all different, were all human and we are all much more similar than we are dissimilar.
I didn’t stay put for very long after that, I went to Tunisia over spring break for an AIESEC conference called MENA XLDS. Here, I learned a lot about how AIESEC functions and leadership and met a lot of people from all over the world. We had some great conversations about East vs. West stereotypes and it was a lot of fun.
After the semester ended I went on the International Business Immersion Program to Europe. We had been studying the global agribusiness supply chain all semester and my group focused on EU trade with developing nations, analyzing the issue through the eyes of the chocolate industry. In Europe we went to Belgium, France, Netherlands, and Germany. I went to lots of company visits trying to figure out how the global agribuisness supply chain works in the real world. I saw lots of super advanced facilities and got to speak with all sorts of business professionals across Europe.
After the trip I went to Amsterdam for a couple days and then Spain for about 10 days with Masha. Spain was especially interesting because I took Spanish in high school, so it was fun trying to pick up as much as I could and trying to communicate. I started out in Barcelona, then Granada, Sevilla, and finally Madrid. I really liked Southern Spain for its mix of modern and Muslim architecture. Spain was a very chill place in general, it seemed like everyone was just taking a break all the time, which was very nice to experience.
From Spain I came to Oman, my current locale. I am here for the summer on an internship with PricewaterhouseCoopers and even that is coming to an end very soon. It has been a very difficult and frustrating challenge trying to adapt to the work culture in Oman. Everything is done very slowly and it it seems like there is a lack of fundamental people management skills. I had a very tough time getting work to do for the first couple of weeks, no matter how persistent I was. It just didn’t make sense to me why I wasn’t getting real work to help with. I proved myself on some small projects which allowed me to establish trust and gain credibility. Since then, I have been able to get on real projects, taking on all kinds of responsibility that interns don’t usually get. I have learned a lot about the audit world and the audit process and confirmed my feelings that I do not want to be in the audit profession. Nevertheless, I am very thankful for my experience here because I really wanted to learn the audit process and I think it will help me a lot in my future endeavors by understanding this portion of the business cycle.
Outside of work, Oman has been very interesting so far. I have gotten the chance to go all around in Oman to Nizwa, Sawadi, Sur, and Sinaw, and I am going to Salalah this weekend. I even got the chance to go to Dubai, Jordan, and Israel while I was here. One of the best weekends I have had here was when we went camping in the desert with the Bedouins. Jihad and Hasan took us to Barzaman to meet their friend Hamnan and his family. The Bedouins are extremely friendly and open, and they welcomed us as if we were their family. We arrived quite late at night, but we still went and plucked a goat from their herd, and proceeded to drive out into the middle of no where. The Bedouins slaughtered the goat, cleaned it, and cooked one of the best meals I have ever eaten, all over an open flame. They cooked the meat with lots of rice and special spices and lemon, and it was delicious. We set up camp and sat around the fire for a bit chatting the night away. Everyone had fallen asleep and I was just laying there on the mat in the sand, staring up into abyss. I must have laid there for hours just staring at the sky, I even saw three shooting stars while I was laying there. It reminded me of Champaign a lot and I really missed home. The next morning we went and saw camel racing, which has become a very entrepreneurial venture for these Bedouins. It’s amazing how the way of life of these nomadic desert people has transformed in the last generation. They are basically like the counterpart to modern cowboys in the USA. After camel racing we drove around the desert looking for small lizard holes. We would then stop the car, connect a hose to the exhaust and gas out the lizards. After some time, they would breathe out all the fumes and recover and be ready to run around. We would put them down on the ground, circle them and then let them run around as we chased them and tried to catch them. As vulgar as it may sound, this is kind of like the equivalent to little boys trying to burn bugs through the lens of a magnifying glass. Nevertheless, it was a great time and I had a lot of fun. Later, we took them back to Hamnan’s home and cooked the lizards with some rice and chicken and had a feast. It was an awesome weekend.
So that is a little taste of what I have been doing for the past two years. It has been an unbelievable ride so far and I hope that there is much more to come. I still can’t believe that I have had such a rich global experience at such a young age, and I am very thankful for it. I have been through a lot of challenges and have had to pound through constant obstacles, but its all worth it in the end. It is a huge world out there and I feel it is our duty as able citizens of the earth to go out and experience as much as we can.