An unexpected hero 

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 I was eight years old, and I was safe at home. Across the sea, while I played on the swing with my younger sister, Noor who was born in Iraq and is now 26, had a completely different story. 

Growing up in Baghdad, bombs, death and violence were no stranger to Noor, who was only 13 when the U.S. began its relentless fight against terrorism. Regardless of ones political orientation, all can agree that growing up on battle grounds is a tragedy. By 2004, he and his family lost most of their hard earned savings and were forced to move to Jordan. His father, a Shia Muslim, had to invest most of his remaining money on a passport to enter Jordan. When he arrived to Jordan he did what he could to provide for his wife and seven children, but his entire family was completely jaded by the Gulf War and many of their wounds were, because of Saddam Hussein and the U.S., too deep to mend. 

Today, Noor lives with his family in Amman, Jordan where he works at at three-level shop in the Balad. Though he was not formally educated beyond middle school, his ability to pick up languages, among other things, reveals his intelligence and natural ability. Noor speaks Arabic, his native tongue, in addition to English, Turkish, Italian and Japanese. 

Noor explained that he works as the shopkeeper everyday except Friday, at time working fourteen hour shifts. He also explained that he has worked since he was twelve. Though it was not necessary for him to work when growing up, he always had the desire to do so. He happily recounts working in a bakery and a sweet shop, during his early years. In addition to working, Noor loves to have fun. He is hesitant to thinking about his war-scarred past and wants everyone to live in peace and harmony and he often finds himself escaping from his memories through smoking and drinking.

Noor smokes shisha at a coffee shop nearby his shop, three times a day in place of meals. Often he only eats one meal per day pledging that he never seems to have an appetite. Though a professed Muslim, Noor does drink. He doesn’t seem to put much thought into the fact that the Qur’an clearly bans alcohol. He also does not attend daily prayer or enter a mosque. He recounted being a child and attending a mosque dressed in a white robe. He remembers tripping over his robe and falling to the floor in front of everyone, vowing to never enter a mosque again. And, he never has. Despite this, he does practice the ritual of fasting during Ramadan, which he takes very seriously. He loves the time past sunset when all Muslims gather in the street, after a day of fasting, and share a meal together. He really seems to treasure this aspect of his faith. In addition to this rather unconventional ways he practices Islam, he has also broken his familial norm by dating an Italian-English girl named Leah.  

Leah, though Italian, was born and raised in England, where she attended college. She is passionate about social justice and aspires to one day work with the UN to help with the refugee crisis. Leah studied Arabic in college and speaks four other languages as well. She and Noor met last July when she inquired with him about a nearby hotel during her initial visit to Amman. Leah now lives and works in Amman planning tours for people but she is looking for a new outlet where she can get involved in helping others. She and Noor seem to come from different worlds yet their worlds collided and the rest is history.  

Since our meeting Noor has talked freely about various interesting topics. He talked about his family’s marriage rituals with his sisters. He informed me that his father has chosen a husband for each of his daughters. And, once the husbands are chosen, his daughters are married off within the week. Noor also shared bits and pieces about the challenges he has faced in regards to his identity.

 As an Iraqi, Shia immigrant in the Sunni majority Jordan, Noor has struggled to find his place. In a fairly conservative family Noor has struggled and he feels his views are more liberal than that of his family. In the eyes of the world, Noor would not seem to have many prospects either. For on paper, he is an Iraqi immigrant who did not receive an education past secondary school. He desires to meet his girlfriend Leah’s family in Italy, yet cannot get a visa to do so. Visiting America is an unattainable dream for him since he sees that obtaining a visa to enter America would be an impossible endeavor. And, in Noor’s case and many cases in this world, the world has it wrong.

Noor is, in reality, a bright, young, intelligent entrepreneur who has had a challenging life because of the geographic location in which he was born. Had he been born into a middle class, American family, like I was born into, his world would be different because the world would see him differently. The world would be at his finger tips. Yet, this is not the case for Noor and thousands of his peers. 

 While many of Noor’s childhood friends have responded to their war-scarred past with violence, Noor has chosen a different route as he tries to find peace and treats all people he meets with respect and kindness.  

Noor and his family, who invited me into their home and shared with me so much love and hospitality have taught me about humility, love and reconciliation that, in my opinion, is unwarranted. I feel undeserving of the kind of love they have offered me. I have never experienced such genuine hospitality and kindness in America. 

 People like Noor remind me that people are more than their circumstances and that true heroes exist in the most unexpected of places. I have hope for this world because of people like Noor. Maybe someday the world will stop stereotyping people based upon how things appear on paper and will begin to see the beautiful, pure hearts that exist within people like my compassionate, Shia Muslim, Iraqi-Jordanian friend.  

Stay true, live justly and always travel on.

Peace and love.

*The names of my friends mentioned above have been changed for their security and privacy. Thank you. 

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an adventure to salt and mafraq

Two weeks ago we had a day off from classes prior to our trip to Petra. I wanted to take advantage of this. So, I along with two other students, contacted my friend Alawi, a shopkeeper that we had shared tea with various times. Alawi, along with his girlfriend Ashleigh, volunteered to take us on a trip through the Jordanian countryside to visit Salt, the former capital of Jordan, and the city of Mafraq, which is known for its large Syrian refugee numbers and for proximity to zaatari, Jordan’s largest Syrian refugee camp.  

Our day began with a stop by a falafel shop near Alawi’s shop in Amman’s Balad. We also stopped by a small shop that sold fresh, stone-baked flat bread. When there, we were brought inside and asked to get a group photograph. The shopkeepers were obviously not used to tourists. They were very kind to us, we felt like celebraties. 

After our breakfast, we headed to the bus station via taxi.  We took a bus to Salt and arrived around 12pm. We walked through the scenic city, sat along a stone wall, talked with village children and admired the view. 


 We also visited a Greek Orthodox Church built in the mid 1600s and a beautiful Orthodox Church, among other things. 
 As we walked through the city, we listened to the loud Friday afternoon message at the mosque, I was taken aback by all the children playing and the friendly locals who wanted me to take photographs of them. I loved walking through the little residential areas and enjoyed looking at the multi-colored clothing that drifted through the wind as they were left to dry on the clothes lines. Salt was also filled with apricot trees which Alawi pretended to knock down strategically using a rock. We enjoyed those sweet fruits as we walked through the stone city. 



After our time in Salt, we took yet another bus to Mafraq. From there we were able to see the Zaatari camp’s entrance. One young couple, who had three small children and an infant, sat among us on our bus and got off near the camp’s entrance. I watched them as they walked through the camp’s entrance. That made the situation all too real for me. Seeing the white tents as we drove away from Zaatari was a surreal experience.  

While I head off to Jordan for its natural beauty and rich culture, many are forced to come to Jordan because they are fearing death. They were forced to leave their homes, their lives, their country and part of their identities behind them. Now they are each branded with the label “refugee” and have become a number and a statistic in a tragic situation. They wait in anticipation and hope to return to their now unrecognizable and destroyed homes. Their current “homes” are now dirt floors and flimsy white tents. Despite this, here I am, traveling, attending a university and leaving my home out of a desire, not a necessity. Seeing Mafraq’s state and the refugee family was a humbling experience. I hope that I am currently attaining skills in school that will help me to give a face to the statistics, spread awareness and somehow help with the refugee problems our world is facing. 

While in Mafraq, our taxi driver brought us to his cousin’s shop where we shared mint tea. After our time in Mafraq, we began our trip back to Amman. Along the way, I joked that I wanted to try camel’s milk but the taxi driver took my pleas seriously. We stopped at a camel farm in the countryside along the way. The first farm we stopped at was run by a Syrian Bedouin refugee but it did not have any nursing camels. About ten minutes later, we stopped at another camel farm. 


  The second farm was much smaller and did happen to have a nursing camel. We ran out to the rural farm as the sun began to set. We then watched a baby camel drink its mother’s milk as a farm boy gently milked the camel, filling a small white bucket. The process was peaceful and the mother did not even seem to notice. The boy then filled water bottles with the warm milk. Feeling adventurous, I took a swig of the warm, freshly milked raw camel’s milk. It was creamy, warm and I was told good for health. It was an experience I will never forget.


During the remainder of our journey back to Amman in our small van, we clapped and sang and danced in our seats to fun, upbeat Arabic music. Upon our arrival to Amman, Alawi insisted we visit his family’s home. We first stopped by a supermarket where we picked up a large watermelon for his family. Upon our entrance to Alawi’s home we were greeted with hugs, kisses and so much love. We were brought to their parlor and brought kanafeh. 
After the kanafeh and some funny conversations, the women brought out the freshly cut watermelon, in generous portions I might add. We then drank some mint tea. One of my favorite moments of the day was when Alwai’s younger sister helped her grandmother, who was in a bed in the living room, sip her tea. When the little, frail grandmother spoke, all were quiet and listed. The love and affection the family showed their elders was absolutely moving. I have never seen such a thing in America.  
After the tea time, Alawi’s cousins brought out drums. We had a little mini dance party all together. Then the women disappeared into another room and signaled for Ashley, Ashleigh and I to follow them into the separate room. When I entered the room, Alawi’s sisters and cousins began to remove their hijabs and whip their hair around. We had a little private dance party. It was surreal and so much fun. They taught me how to dance in the traditional Arab way. 

After our dance party, we went back to the living area and were offered coffee, at 10pm, but we could not say no as we understood that drinking coffee is a sign of hospitality in the Arab culture. After our coffee they invited us to return to their home for a traditional Iraqi dinner this upcoming week. I am excited to embark on yet another cultural adventure and to spend more time with such a loving and welcoming family.   
I am so thankful for the small little spontaneous moments during my day trip to Salt and Mafraq and I look forward to more cultural experiences during the remainder of my time in Jordan. 

Stay true, live justly and always travel on.  Peace and love. 

Mosque prayer 

Last week we visited the King Abdullah Mosque and observed the afternoon prayer. In order to enter the mosque all of the women were asked to put on a long black cloak with a hood. I did not mind doing so, but while walking into the mosque I noticed that the cloaks really did hold in the heat. However, as I sat in the mosque, captivated by the newness of the experience, the heat became tolerable. Upon our entrance to the mosque, I immediately noticed that the mosque, in contrast to other mosques that I have seen, was beautiful and ornately decorated. I was captivated by the stained glass, the celestial blue and the gold writing and artwork surrounding the building. I noticed a few interesting things about the mosque. I noticed that every third light on the chandelier was turned on, the stained glass seemed to be without a pattern and the light that poured in through the glass beautifully illuminated the building. I also took note that the walls of the mosque were brown, wooden and rather detailed and the carpet was very soft. 


As we waited for the prayer to begin, my eyes followed and traced along the patterning on the carpet. Following the call to prayer men from all directions and all walks of life flowed into the mosque in the name of prayer. I loved watching the men flood into the mosque. Old and young walked into the mosque, construction workers and business men, traditional bedouins, Palestinians and many others to be sure, all stood together before God, praying. I loved seeing all people come together for the worship of God, each of them removing their shoes and leaving their titles behind them at the entrance of the mosque. The communal prayer definitely reveled the Arab culture’s tendency towards collectivism as the community took part in the ritual together. As I observed the ritual and the tradition of the prayer, I marveled at the historic tradition. 

I wondered how individuals could actually focus upon the prayer and not get caught up in the motions and the positions during their prayer. I do understand and see the beauty in their very physical action of surrendering to Allah, but I myself would honestly find it challenging to focus both on God and on prayer during the prayer sessions because of the beauty of the mosque and the motions themselves. It reminded me a bit of my own Catholic upbringing. Many call the motions and the repetitious kneeling and standing that is present in mass, Catholic aerobics. Having this background with the ritualistic prayer motions of mass, I understood the significance of the prayer aerobics or motions but also can testify that such things can be rather distracting.  

Another interesting aspect to the experience was seeing that even after the prayer had begun, many individuals continued to flood into the mosque. At least thirty men came late, many even running to take their place in the direction of Mecca, this reflected the polychronic aspect of the Arab culture. I also find it so interesting that the prayer in Islam does seem rather time oriented though it has origins in the Arab culture which tends to be less time orientated. 

My experience in the mosque was wonderful. I loved seeing all the men, from all different walks of life, come together in the name of prayer. I do wonder if the prayer and the attendance of individuals is because they desire to obtain more deeds so that they can enter the gates of paradise or if it is their desire to grow in relationship with God. I personally would struggle separating the two if I grew up in Islam. I also wonder how individuals can conceptualize God without giving God some sort of image. I do like that Muslims do not label God as a man and do not decorate their mosques with pictures of God, but I personally cannot imagine trying to conceptualize God without the images I was subjected to as a child. I look forward to not only experiencing more Mosque prayers in the future but also learning more about Islam and its notions of God and prayer rituals. I am thankful that I was able to experience the mosque prayer at King Abdullah Mosque, it is something that I will always cherish as it has helped me understand the practice of Islam in personal way.  

Overview of Jordan thus far 

I did not know what to expect when traveling to Amman, Jordan for the Middle Eastern studies program. I came with an open heart and mind and with little to no expectations. 

Upon our arrival we participated in scavenger hunts in Amman that not only helped me to get to know the other students in which I am traveling but also helped me get to know Amman. 

 My time in Amman has been filled with sook visits, tea with shopkeepers, city adventuring, excessive falafel eating, mosque visits, interesting classes on Islam and the Arab culture and various adventures outside of Amman.

Throughout my time in Jordan, I have grown in ways I never imagined and I have cherished every moment in this beautiful, welcoming culture. From the second I stepped outside of the plane I have been greeted with the phrase “Welcome to Jordan” on every street corner and shop I have entered. 


From day one in Jordan, I have fallen in love with the Arab culture and people. Not only are Jordanians friendly, the country is absolutely stunning.


 I am thankful that the program focuses upon understanding Islam and debunking much of the awful images of Islam that are constantly portrayed in the media.
Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance.


 In reality, only one tenth of one percent of Muslims are actually violent or participate in extremist groups. Everyone I have met in Jordan has gone out of their way to show me that they condemn violence and that the Qur’an promotes peace. 

Truly, the Muslims I have met here been some of the most faithful, dedicated and welcoming people I have ever met. I am so thankful that I have gotten to experience Islam first hand so that I can see the truth that the American media portrayals of the religion are both inaccurate and unjust.  


In addition to learning about Islam both inside and out of class, I have also learned much about the Arab culture. I have been invited to dinners, given tea by shopkeepers and overcome by the hospitality I have been offered here.


 In addition to this, thus far in our trip we have visited many beautiful places outside of Amman including the Dead Sea, Jerash, Umm Qais, Petra, Jesus’ Baptism Site, Mt. Nebo and Madaba. Each of the trips has been a surreal experience for me. I have dreamed about such places for my whole life, to actually visit and see the sites has been absolutely incredible.
During our day at the Dead Sea, we were able to cover ourselves in Dead Sea mud and float around. I took advantage of this and even read my bible while in the salty water.
 I also participated in the MESP Dead Sea dunk and dive tradition and I withstood the facial and eye burning when I submerged my entire body under the water. The day spent at the Dead Sea was rejuvenating. I felt fully present and whole when floating around, enjoying the sunset and taking in the beauty of every moment. 
A few days after the Dead Sea we visited Jerash and Umm Qais and I was blown away by the incredibly preserved ancient Roman ruins. 


 From the various theaters, preserved shops and city center in Jerash to the gorgeous view of the Golan Heights and Israel-Palestine from Umm Qais, the trip was spectacular. 
 Following this trip, during my day off I enjoyed a visit through the Jordanian countryside to the cities of Salt and Mafraq and was overcome by the beauty of Jordan’s diverse, dry landscape filled with herds of goats, sheep and camels.  


 This past weekend’s trip to Petra is also an incredible experience. The hikes were fairly challenging and the views were breathtaking.


 I loved hiking around the Royal Tombs, the Ad Deir monastery, the great temple, the treasury and walking along the colonnaded street looking at the handmade Bedouin necklaces. While there, I loved talking with the local Bedouins, sunset watching, petting the donkeys and pretending to be Indiana Jones at times.


The day after our time in Petra, we headed to Jesus’ Baptism Site, Mt. Nebo and visited a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church in Madaba. 

While at Jesus’ Baptism site, I decided to have a renewal baptism which was a significant decision for me. I, along with five other students, decided to renew our baptism again, many of us were baptized as infants and decided to reconfirm our faith as adults. And, we did so in the Jordan River in the region where Jesus was supposed to be Baptized by John the Baptist. I was overcome by the beauty of the experience, it is one that I will never forget. 
Following our time at the baptism sight, we stopped by Mount Nebo where Moses, According to the Torah, first saw the promised land and where Moses eventually died. After Mount  Nebo, we headed to Madaba where we visited a Greek Orthodox Church that holds a mosaic of the oldest map in the Middle East.

This journal that is a chronicle of the events of this trip thus far serves as a beautiful memoir of my time in Jordan. Reflecting upon the places I have gone and the gorgeous sights I have seen reminds me that the most significant experiences of this trip have been the sweet, simple moments and the meaningful conversations that I have had. 

 This trip has been life changing and I am thankful for the opportunity to be here, learning from my experiences with locals within this beautiful Arab country. I look forward to the adventures that are yet to come. Stay true, life justly and always travel on. Peace and love. 

sea glass and summer travels 

I couldn’t sleep last night. I tossed and turned until I finally decided to roll out of bed, grudgingly put on my hiking boots and drive to the beach. I needed to walk, to think, to breathe. I ended up lost in thought and captivated by the cool wind and the sound of the refreshing waves as they caressed the shoreline.  I felt at peace as I walked along the paved sidewalk along the beach. As I was walking I noticed pieces of sand glass had washed upon the shore. 

As I collected the shimmering pieces of softened glass, I noticed something. I am like that sand glass. I, like all people, am broken. I have experienced tragedy, loss and pain. I am a shattered bottle.. Yet like the sand glass, the broken pieces of my life can be refined. As the waves of life thrust me into the gritty sand, my sharp edges continue to be softened through my experiences.  And, over time, each of the shards of glass in my life have become beautiful pieces of art, each being distinct from one another. 


Though I, like all humans, have experienced sorrow which has taught me to cling to the hope of tomorrow, to embrace the collective love we can share, to acknowledge the beauty within the mysteries within life, to be awe struck by the beauty of nature and most importantly, to be empathetic. All this being said, my walk yesterday was full of reflection and presence. One of the reasons I was unable to sleep yesterday night was because of my excitement for my upcoming summer.

Until June I will be living in Amman, Jordan with my university where I will be studying the peoples and cultures of the Middle East. While there I will be visiting the Dead Sea, Petra, Jesus’ baptism sight, Aqaba, Jerash, Madaba, Wadi Rum, and Mt. Nebo among other significant religious sites. I, along with seventeen other students, will be living in downtown Amman for the duration of this four week program. I am actually the resident advisor for the program, or as I like to call myself the mediator or go-to person for my professor and the other students.  

Other than eating tons of fresh falafel, learning survival Arabic, meeting locals and seeing significant holy sites, I don’t really know what to expect with this trip. Though I have traveled through Central America, Europe and detoured into Morocco for a bit, I do not  have experience with a Middle Eastern country. I am entering this trip with little to no expectations and with an open mind. 

Following my time in Jordan, I will fly directly to India where I am meeting one of my close friends, Pauline, with whom I am doing a yoga certification program in the world capital of yoga, Rishikesh. I have dreamed of traveling to India since I was a child. Mother Teresa has always been a key mentor in my life, which has contributed to India’s special place in my heart. In addition to this, my brother Tony traveled to India when he was in college, which has always inspired me to travel to the complex and incredible country myself. 

After spending six weeks in the yoga certification program, I will fly to Kolkata where I will volunteer with the sisters of charity until August. I hope my experience working with sisters of charity will open my heart and mind. We are all impoverished but some of us have impoverished hearts while others experience the devastation of physical poverty. 

I want to experience the poverty that many of my brothers and sisters face. I believe that I cannot possibly work towards fixing a problem unless I have seen it and experienced it. That being said, I hope that my proximal experience with physical poverty this summer will help me work towards empowering others to acknowledge and move forward from their depravity, whether that be spiritual or physical.  In reality, I am sure I will see that I am more impoverished than many of those that I will meet.  I look forward to learning about joy , love and what it means to live, from all those I encounter during this adventure. 

Following my work with the pious religious order, I tenitively fly back to Los Angeles and hopefully, be able to stop by Chicago area to visit my family before I begin my senior year. My summer plans are, though the tickets have been bought and the programs paid for, rather tentative. If I learned anything from my time on the Camino and from my other previous travels, I do anticipate that my plans will change.  

Like my other experiences, I know that this summer will refine me and hopefully soften my edges and help me to become a more compassionate, empathetic individual. Though I do not know what the future holds, I know that we need more compassionate, empathetic people in every occupation.

I know many of you are probably wondering why I am traveling and why I am not staying in the United States and working domestically.  Here are a few reasons.  First, I am an International Studies/political studies major and I have a passion for travel, to understand different religions, cultures and worldviews. Second, I am willing to make sacrifices to travel. Like not eating out at restruants and sticking to eating the basics, like apples and bananas, so that I can save my earned money for travel.  Another reason is that I do not want to desensitize myself to the reality of the world I live in.  So, when given an opportunity to see new parts of the world or live as others do, I will run with it.  

Thankfully, my parents and my family have supported me through much prayer, among other things, during my previous travels and adventures. My parents know that I am like a free bird and that I have a thirst for knowledge and experience.  They also know I have an end goal of promoting justice and working to promote human rights in some capacity in the future, and these experiences are part of my journey towards such work.  Though my dreams may sound audacious, I once thought my dream of traveling the world was rather improbable yet here I am about to begin another journey.  

I did, for those of you that remember my blog as CollegeWorldTraveler.com, decide to change my blog domain to JourneyAlong.me. I did this because I am captivated by the thought that we are each on a uniquely distinct journey. Whether your journey is composed of travel, raising a family or a nine-to-five job, we are all pilgrims just trekking our way through this beautiful and mysterious life. 

 So, if you so desire, I invite you to journey with me this summer as I travel through Jordan and India. Throughout my travels I will continue, as time and wifi permits, to share my thoughts and photographs with you. Many blessings to each of you.
Stay true, live justly and always travel on.  
Peace and Love.  

yosemite in the snow

We live in a paradoxical world. Despite the heartache, the suffering and the tragic events that occur in this world, there still exist places of pure serenity and peace. Yosemite is one of those places. Yosemite is a true heaven that exists on this earth with her vast beautiful valley, majestic falls, granite mountains, rock formations, flowing waters, and ancient pine and sequoia trees.  For my 21st birthday I could think of no other place I’d rather be. So, following my finals my dear friend Ashley and I headed up north to embark on a spontaneous journey to Yosemite.

Our road trip was filled with long talks about life, God, philosophy, meaning and beauty. I cannot express my gratitude to have a friend like Ashley; I not only view her as a kindred spirit, but also as a sister. To have a friend that I can share thoughts, beliefs, doubts, questions and struggles with is an immeasurable gift.

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After a long drive filled with Sufjan Stevens and sweet conversations, we were greeted by chilly winds and fresh mountain air as we exited Ashley’s black pathfinder. On the first night of our journey we stayed with Ashley’s sweet grandmother, who lives around 45 minutes outside of the park. Ashley’s grandmother’s home is simple and heated by a single wood-burning stove. The moments of calm spent in her home were precious. Ashley and I awoke to a prepared breakfast and breathtaking scenic views that surrounded the quaint home. I enjoyed looking through the old photographs and art pieces that are on display throughout the home. After lots of hugs and thanksgiving, Ashley and I set out for Yosemite.  

Upon entering the park, my heart began to race as the misty, scenic views began to surround the car. The exquisite beauty of the park muted the faint hum of Ben Howard’s song “Old Pine” which quickly became the theme song of our trip.   After making it to the valley, we headed to the upper pines campsite, where we set up camp in the snow. We then headed out on our first hike towards Mirror Lake.

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Mirror Lake is stunning, with her vivid reflections and beautiful valley views, it sparked many thoughts. I thought about the fact that many of us, throughout our lives, may marvel at the reflections that we encounter yet fail to acknowledge the reality of the actual views before us.   Moreover, reflections though they are incredible, are missing the depth and the radiant hues of reality. What we perceive in this world is a reflection of reality, yet I know that each of us sometimes believe that our own perceptions are reality, but we must not confuse the reflections and the realities  that exist in our lives.

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After the hike, Ashley and I headed over to the Yosemite Village General Store, where I bought my first alcoholic beverage (in the U.S.) as a 21 year old: a small bottle of moscato rose sparkling wine. We also bought packets of Indian food, which we happily enjoyed sitting around the campfire (which we built ourselves, I may add). It was a perfect birthday, thanks not only to Yosemite but also to my true friend, Ashley. We spent the remainder of the night stargazing, listening the crackle of the fire, and enjoying each other’s company.

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 The following morning we set out for the upper falls trail. The hike was incredible. It took about six hours round trip and led to the highest waterfall in North America. At the start of the hike there was a light rain that greeted us, which made the trail a bit slippery. As we trekked onwards, snowfall began, and at one point we were walking through calf-deep snow. Though our feet quickly became numb, our frigid bodies were thawed and warmed by the breathtaking views that we encountered.
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The views of the valley, of the granite rock formations, of half dome, of the mist-covered pine trees, each brought me peace and a sense of comfort and connection. A connection to the earth and her endless beauty. Though I felt somewhat small in comparison to the stunning views that surrounded me, I felt more significant than ever. Breath by breath, step-by-step, snowflake after snowflake, every moment, every snow-covered pine tree passed and gorgeous view that stood before us, refreshed and revived my spirit and reminded me of what true freedom feels like.

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At the top of the peak Ashley and I made a little snowman.

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We used goji berries for the eyes and a cashew for the smile (though it fell off). As we were making the snowman, the sun’s rays broke through the mist-filled sky and reflected her brilliant light onto the mountains. This added a shimmery glow to the already magnificent views. Of course no photograph could ever capture the presence and the beauty of that moment. There is something so special about our experiences in life… The best things in life cannot be captured.

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On our third and final day in Yosemite, Ashley and I trekked up to Vernal Falls. Though the trail was technically closed due to the massive foot long icicles and the ice-covered trails, we, like any true adventurers, ignored the signs and hiked to the waterfall.

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This particular hike was a prayer and meditative hike. We walked, prayed silently and reflected on 1 Corinthians 14:33: “For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.”   During that hike, as I repeated and declared that verse over my thoughts, my steps and myself, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. The God of all peoples is greater than religion, is greater than our individual circumstances and our doubts, God is a God for everyone and God is a God of peace. 

IMG_7223IMG_7161SAMSUNG CSCIMG_1002I would naturally compare confusion, not with peace, but with clarity. However Paul, in 1 Corinthians compares confusion with peace. While we may think that adhering to a certain faith tradition or religion may bring us clarity, the verse does not say that. It says that God is a God of peace but peace does not necessarily mean clarity. Sometimes I feel as though we chase after the wrong things, we look for clarity in a confusing world rather than peace in a universal God. So, as we face our confusion and our doubts let us find peace in a God that is greater than our confusion. I will never have anything truly figured out and I will always have doubts, though I am working through them, but let us all find hope in a universal and great God who is a God of peace in a world of confusion.

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My trip to Yosemite was refreshing and revitalizing. I hope and pray that each of you have a year of peace, take a hike every so often and take the time to reground yourselves to this beautiful earth of ours. From one pilgrim to another: we are all on a journey, though my journey may be different than yours, each is unique and beautiful and is a mere twinkle of light in this vast universe. We must constantly remind ourselves of our own vitality and connection to this earth as we move through the motions of everyday life.

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We must take quiet moments of reflection and look for the sweet, simple joys that are present within each of our lives. We are finite beings. We are here then we are gone. But, our joy, our love, and our peace that we share with this world can live forever through those we impact. I pray that each of you would take the time to experience life without fear, that you would find your places of sweet freedom, like I have found in nature and like I did in Yosemite. Stay true, live justly, and always travel on. Peace and love.

A trip to New York City

With her bright city lights, energy, crowds, food, and symbolism, New York City is a destination for tourists and Americans alike. So, after living in Europe for nine months and traveling a bit, I thought it was time I visited the place where it all started—literally my family arrived in America via Ellis Island in 1902—and pay the iconic city a visit. Conveniently, my younger sister Mariana decided to enroll in a pre-college program in NYC this summer, which provided me with an excuse to pay the city a visit. So, in early July my mom, dad, two sisters, my niece, nephew and I headed to the city that never sleeps.

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Time with family, especially fourteen-hour car drives, is unique and special in a few ways. In fact, when reminiscing childhood vacations, the memories that occur in the car on the way to our destination are often the ones that stick. Why is that? Well, drive across country with over ten people in the car and you will find out! Our road trip was not so bad though, even with a two and a half year old and a baby. Surprisingly, they were the least of our worries.  With heated political and religious conversations, children’s songs, prayers, and bantering, there was a lot of chaos! Amongst the disorder of it all, there was still a sense of peace and relaxation, one that only a road tripping family can possibly understand.

Before our time in NYC, we stopped in Washington DC to visit my family. While in DC, we visited Georgetown Cupcakes (they have yummy vegan options), the Smithsonian and the National Mall.  At the Natural History museum there was an incredible Iceland exhibit.  It made me want to visit the country!

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After a few days in DC, we headed to New York City, leaving my older sister and her two children behind for obvious reasons. My aunt and uncle came along for the city visit, which was great. We stayed at an Airbnb in Bushwick, in an area that turned out to be undergoing re-gentrification, which was an adventure in itself!  Staying near Brooklyn was great, as I loved window-shopping, farmers market going, and people watching. Brooklyn is an absolutely wonderful area, it feels urban yet eclectic and whimsical. I loved the vegan restaurants, jewelry shops, street art, flowers, and its overall energy.

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Brooklyn StreetsWe visited all the main sites in NYC, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, Greenwich Village, Union Square, 9/11 Memorial, and Times Square (among others).

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After feeling a bit claustrophobic in the busy city, Central Park was a wonderful stop. While in Central Park, we happened to run into a celebrity! Her name is Roxie and she is an adorable little Yorkie (search “Roxie in the City” on Facebook).

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Roxie in the City!

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We were also able to see both my cousin (who works in Manhattan) and distant Puerto Rican relatives. Sitting around the dinner table and enjoying the company of family and friends is something I will always cherish.

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One of my favorite memories from our trip was surprisingly in Times Square, not because I liked Times Square, but rather, I enjoyed my father’s reaction to the famous New York icon. Right as entered Times Square my father, with his socks, sandals, and baseball cap walked around excitedly and said, “Well…Time to check this one off the bucket list, now I just need a pretzel with cheese…” He then proceeded to buy a pretzel and walk aimlessly through the crowds of people as he stared up at the bright lights and advertisements. I, of course, did nothing but laugh and follow him, watching his reactions, enjoying every moment of it! It’s moments like those that I will always remember.  So, I made it to New York City. No, I did not eat a hot dog (I’m vegan) or even buy a “I heart NYC” t-shirt, but I did have a wonderful time with my family and I made memories that I will always treasure.

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Stay true, live justly, and always travel one. Peace and love.

A pilgrim’s heart: one year post Camino

Everybody has their own path, their own story, their own way. Amongst the business of life, the excitement of politics, the stress caused by work, and the seemingly mundane moments, we are all trekking our way through life. Each moment passing as the next precedes it. Each word acknowledged as the next is spoken. Sometimes, I fear that we forget we each are on a journey. I fear we forget that life is an adventure.  Mostly, I fear we are all going along with the motions of life; we are merely existing, instead of living.  What does life look like when we’re living anyways?  For me, it looks a lot like the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. SAMSUNG CSC Imagine yourself stripped of your job, school, political and religious ideologies, material belongings, culture, and all the convenience of comfort. Now, imagine living your life questioning every aspect of your existence, envision yourself actually thinking. Yes, thinking.  Thinking without the constant influence of society and media invading your every thought. Thinking not only about work, but also about the inner workings of your being, your very existence. Imagine yourself living out of a backpack for 38 days, with no set place to lie your head at night, a mere wanderer. Now imagine living an adventurous life every day and letting go of all you once were and instead, embracing who you are to become. IMG_0780Why am I asking you to imagine such things you may wonder? I am asking you to do such things because I fear no one else is. I am asking you because those were the things that I experienced and learned to ask myself while on the Camino de Santiago. Today marks my one-year Camino anniversary, as I completed the Camino de Santiago on July 25, 2014.  Yet, today truly represents something more than my arrival in Santiago one year ago. Instead, today is the one-year mark on my new beginning.  A new beginning where I began to strive to live each day as if I were still on the Camino.  Why?  Because I am. Though I may not be following a dirt covered trail surrounded by beautiful vineyards and rolling hills, I am on my Camino.  I am on my way to an unknown destination. SAMSUNG CSC SAMSUNG CSC The Camino represents our life journey. A 520-mile journey that is plagued by times both good and bad, by friendships both lasting and fleeting, and by moments both remembered and forgotten. Though the Camino was only a five-week experience, it was a life changing and eye opening one.  I choose to take the lessons I learned on the Camino and apply them to every facet of my life. I search for and follow the yellow arrows placed before me, both literal and figurative.  I often carry a scallop shell in my purse wherever I go.  The scallop shell, a symbol of the Camino, serves the purpose of reminding me though I may not be on my way to Santiago on the trail, I am on my way to Santiago in my heart. For, I have adopted a pilgrim’s heart. Camino wild flowers IMG_0865This year, alike with the Camino, had her moments of pure bliss and moments of heartache. But, when I step back and see things as I should, moment-by-moment and step-by-step, then my heart is soothed, my mind is cleared, and I begin to live. I will always choose to stop and smell the flowers; I refuse to live a conventional, lukewarm life. I will continue to smile and say a quick “hello” to strangers.  I will cling to the beauty of community and the excitement found in a new friendship.  I will listen to the stories of others without making rash judgments based upon their surface level, external characteristics.  I will always hold onto the freedom that a life characterized by simplicity yields. I will continue to hold a part of the Camino in my heart.  As I head into my junior year in college, I will continue to question, think, and take my time to reflect upon my actions.  I will not fail to remember who I am and who we all are: unique human beings who possess the ability to love others and live in harmony and peace with all living things. I hope you are enjoying your way, your journey, and this very day. I hope that you too will choose to live rather than to merely exist. And finally, I hope that during your journey, despite the hardships you will (and do) inevitably face, you will see beauty in the simple and the mundane moments taking each as they are: a gift that will bring us one step closer to our final destination. Buen Camino pilgrims! SAMSUNG CSC My sweet travel group On the Camino SAMSUNG CSC Stay true, live justly, and always travel on. Peace and Love.

Goodbye Firenze, hello Malibu, and a new chapter at home

Sometimes saying goodbye is difficult.  Sometimes saying hello and moving forward is challenging.  Sometimes, however, when the time is right the hellos and goodbyes don’t seem too bad. It has been exactly one month today since I said goodbye to Florence. I said goodbye to Europe, to my study abroad experience, and to my new found “home” on April 15. It is hard to believe that was already one month ago. Saying goodbye was not too difficult since I saw more than I ever thought I would and I grew and matured in ways I am extremely grateful for.

Many people, during our final week in Italy, rushed around the city and seemed stressed with the pressure to see and to taste the things they had previously hoped to taste and see while in Italy.  I, however, after eight months of travel and study, relaxed and did not become too preoccupied with what I did not do while abroad, but instead I marveled at everything I was able to do while abroad. Because, when I look back to my time abroad, I am thankful and fulfilled.  I was able to travel to Italy, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Hungary, England, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Morocco, Greece and Vatican City. I saw the islands Sardinia, Sicily, Santorini, Burano and Murano, among others. I was able to visit over 100 cities; yes 100, I counted if you don’t believe me. I hiked the Alps in Switzerland and Italy, road tripped in Tuscany, walked over the Pyrenees in Spain and I have memories that I cherish dearly which will last me a lifetime.  I’d say my year has definitely been a memorable one. I am excited to see where life takes me next. Even though it has been one month since I returned home, I do not think I have fully processed my journey yet. The beginning of my time in Italy was actually quite difficult since as my time in Italy began, I was still trying to process my journey on the Camino de Santiago. I have too many thoughts to think about and ponder at the moment. But, it is my hope that my journey will help me to relate to and understand others in a more impactful way in the future.

Some of my highlights include the quiet freedom I felt when hiking the dolomites, seeing the Tuscan countryside and taking in the beauty of multi-colored houses in Cinque Terre.  I will always treaure the time I spent with my Italian relatives as well; I got to spend Christmas and Easter with them and go hiking, caving, and visit thermal springs with my family as well.  Other precious moments include embracing the beauty of new cultures and customs, meeting the smiling people of Ireland, hearing the call to prayer and walking through the souks in Morocco.  A more difficult yet impactful memory was when I visited the Dachau concentration camp and felt the pain and suffering that once occurred there while I attempted to fathom the plight that the Jews once faced in Nazi Germany.  Other moments I will never forget: seeing Papa Francisco twice and watching the sunset in Santorini and Sardenia. Those are only a few moments that come to mind when I recall the past nine months of my life, but there are many more, too many more stories waiting to be told.  One thing I am extremely grateful for is that this year I learned the importance of presence and of experiencing moments to their fullest.  I learned to take life less seriously, to laugh at my rediculious tendencies, to value true friendship and relatonships.  Most importantly, I learned to love others in a deeper way.

Some pictures from my highlighted moments:

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During our final week in Florence, we had a final banquet. The Gala was held at the top of a beautiful hotel that overlooked the Duomo, I have pictures to share below!

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Here are a few photos of my Italian friends and sweet Antonella (a Florentine resident who I worked with regularly who has downs syndrome). Sweet ones Sweet Antonella Italian friends My Italian friend

The Gala was one of the final dinners we shared all together and a time we were all able to honor the teachers and talk about the year. At the end of the banquet, I read a poem that I wrote about our time we spent together in Florence. It is simple, but I will share it with you all below.

 In September we came

Feeling excited and a bit afraid

A new country, a new place

A new chapter up ahead

Strangers we all were

Surrounded by the unknown

We walked into a building

That we would soon call our home

The excitement and thrill

Uncontrollable and intense

But soon reality set in

And life seemed to change on a whim

Firenze, we never knew

The challenges we would face

The happy moments and the tears

The facing of our fears

It felt hard, it seemed impossible

But we soon did adjust

We traveled, we experienced

We began to see the world

We found our little niches

Our sweet places of freedom

We cherished new friendships

And grew in unexplainable ways

Winter break soon ended

A new semester, a new start

New faces and new transitions

Welcoming in nine new additions

We set out for semester two

Some excited others blue

Others didn’t quite know what to do

But we all did learn a lesson or two

We traveled to find

What we needed was here all along

A community full of laughter

And a household of love

Now we sit here together

Only seven days left

Where did time take us?

We think and reflect

Emotions are now flowing

The reality has not yet set in

Yet now the goodbyes soon must begin

We say goodbye to

the pizza, the pasta, the Duomo

The gelato, the palazzos,

The statues and fine art

Goodbye to the Italians,

To Viale Milton

Goodbye most of all,

To who we once were before our journey had begun

Firenze how you would change us

Was unclear from the start

But we leave here with memories

Thanks to the city of the arts

We soon will enter our homeland

But before we depart,

Goodbye sweet Firenze,

You’re forever in our hearts

As a house, we left a gift for the future students who will be studying in Florence. We decided to leave a “yearbook page” meaning that the house would come up with a superlative for each of us, which would be placed by an individual photo of our choice and a quote. I was so honored because the superlative that was given to me was “most likely to save the world.” I don’t think I deserve this superlative, but I am more than honored that my peers gave me such an honorable title. In reality, I know I will never be able to change the world. All I hope to do is to love everyone and allow God to work through me, for change only comes from God. I feel as though I have been given so much and I often wonder, “Why me?” None of us will ever discover the answer to the question “Why us?”  I think the question that I will begin to ask myself is “How can I use the gifts and the experiences I have been given to help others?”  Maybe that is the question we should constantly ask ourselves. Matthew 10:8 says, “Freely you have received; freely give” I hope to model my life after this. I hope to give to those who have nothing, I want to share the love I have been given with the voiceless and the broken hearted. It is not a command that I have to do this, but instead a burning desire within my heart, one I have possessed ever since I was a child. Whether it is through spreading cultural awareness and acceptence, contributing to the world in using strong intercultural communication skills, or helping a child who is suffering. I hope that whatever I do, I will do it for the good of others and mostly; I will do it out of love.

After my time in Florence, I flew directly to Malibu. I stayed on campus with my dear friend Jennifer for a few days. Being back at the Malibu campus was refreshing. I was able to spend a good deal everyday at the beach, have a sunrise devotional, catch up with some great friends, visit my favorite acai juice bar Sunlife Organics, volunteer in the projects in downtown LA and even go to the campus ministry formal. I have a few pictures below from my time in Malibu.

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When I arrived home, it felt like a dream. I was tired, jet lagged, excited, and my mind was overloaded. While abroad, though I did not blog about this (I will explain more in future posts), I was actually ill. Even though I did travel throughout Europe, I suffered from various health problems throughout my journey and visited various Italian health physicians. Though I had originally planned on interning in Washington DC this summer with Pepperdine, I had to withdraw from the program in order to heal. So, this summer will be one full of relaxation and healing which is a stark contrast to my last nine months abroad. Since home I have been eating a raw, vegan diet (I have been vegetarian for 12 years, vegan for 4), doing yoga regularly, reading, spending time with family, and relaxing outside. It has seemed almost like a relaxation retreat. I have also been filling out various scholarships and other applications as well. What’s next? Well, as of now this summer will be one of healing but I am volunteering at a weeklong foster kids’ camp in June and will be hopefully traveling to Puerto Rico and backpacking (if my health allows) as well. I was just accepted into a Jewish Studies Scholarship Program, which will sponsor an internship in Israel next summer (or the following one), which I am excited about. I get excited thinking about living in the Middle East, I cannot wait, but until then I will continue to rest and hopefully my body will be healed soon. I will be posting regularly throughout the summer despite the fact that I will not be abroad, so keep your eyes open! Stay true, live justly, and always travel on. Peace and love.