Last week, I was thrilled to be part of Passion Passport, a travel website fueled by wanderlust, stories and photos. My contribution below:
Scare Yourself- What I Wish Someone Had Told Me In College
It’s 11pm on a Thursday when I step off the plane. The air is warm and filled with a scent I can’t place but will quickly fall in love with. Sand, salt, citrus and cardamom. Arabic music blasts from a car stereo outside of the airport and buses piled high with men on their cell phones, women much more covered than I am, (I self-consciously pull my scarf tighter), and crying babies fill the parking lot. “Welcome to Jordan!” someone shouts at me.
I am definitely not in Wisconsin anymore. Twenty-four hours earlier I was safe in the heart of my beautiful Madison campus, drinking Spotted Cow and eating cheese curds. I cried as I hugged my friends goodbye on Bascom Hill, that massive statue of Abe Lincoln gazing down on us.
Now, because I’m a journalism student and I have this crazy notion that all of the exciting news is in the Middle East, I’m boarding a bus to a small town near the border of Syria to study Arabic.
“You know, local news wouldn’t be so bad,” I think, as we bump and veer along a dusty mountain road, forests to the east and the Rift Valley to the west.
In the first week, I eat my weight in hummus, hack out the Arabic alphabet, (though my hacking noises need serious work), and befriend a group of students. I breathe a sigh of relief. I just might be ok.
As the months go on, it’s clear I’m going to be better than ok. I’m going to fall hard for the language, the place and people, the culture and food, the scents and sounds. I’ll start to smile at the call to prayer — that beautiful, warbling voice that permeates the city and wakes me at ridiculous hours. I’ll settle into rituals – a stop at the Nescafe stand and bakery each morning, for a coffee fix and sweet, sticky, honey and semolina cake. I’m going to become enchanted with the grit of the city exposed in graffiti and smoke and industrial buildings, contrasted by rolling hills and pastures just outside. I’ll marvel at the blend of old and new, of Pepsi signs mounted next to ancient castle ruins. I’m going to develop a fondness for scarves and elaborate teapots, and become picky over falafel sandwiches. I’ll learn that universities worldwide share comfortingly similar qualities, and I’ll meet some of my closest friends. And by the end of summer, I’ll linger outside of the airport, breathing in that sandy, cardamom filled air one last time before boarding the plane back to Wisconsin, a place that now feels both foreign and mundane.
Studying abroad not only changed my life, it defined it. Unable to shake the travel bug, I bought a backpack after graduation and spent a year meandering through Asia and the Middle East. I didn’t have a plan, or a job offer for when I returned. I was both elated and terrified. Convinced I was doing the right thing, yet sure I was ruining my life.
I wish someone had told me that it was ok. That seeing the world and having conversations with the people in it was a form of education almost more important than the four, (very expensive), years I paid for. That curiosity, compassion and the ability to navigate the unknown are learned best through experience, and are traits that employers often value. I wish I would have known that taking time to pursue a passion doesn’t prevent, but instead ignites a better future. A passport is worth more than a plan.
Bankrupt and bursting with stories, I eventually returned to the US and found my way in the “real world.” But my version of the real world involves a job inspired by travel and fueled by human interaction, and I couldn’t have found it without that first taste of a foreign place in Jordan. Go, travel, scare yourself. It’s ok. You’re ok. And honestly, you’re probably better than that.
See it on Passion Passport