Writer at Large: NY Times 52 Places To Go
“Does he have a passport?” That was the first question my friend Marina asked me over dinner several years ago in New York City when she was in town for work. I was telling her about the new guy I was dating at the time.
“Well, no,” I started, “But he seems nice-"
“You should break up with him,” she said before I could even finish that thought. **
It’s funny how sometimes your friends know you better than you know yourself. For as long as I can remember, I have lived my life with a trip on the horizon. Whether I had money or not, I made it happen. I love where I am and also love looking forward to where I’m exploring next. 26 countries, 4 continents, and still counting!
Growing up in Ohio with immigrant parents, my family wasn’t into National Lampoon cross country adventures. And with my first international trip at the age of 3, I used to always think “real travel” meant you had to leave the country. But a few years ago I decided I also wanted to check out more of our own country including our national parks.
((**We did break up eventually. That wasn’t the only reason why, but it did factor in...!))
MOST RECENT TRIP: The badlands
As we traveled east on Interstate 90 all the way across Wyoming and into South Dakota, the lyrics of “America the beautiful” started to make a lot more sense to me. There was nothing but beautiful spacious skies, amber waves of grain and the occasional cow, sheep and wild horse. I was taking it all in and feeling the American pride as we continued onward and the mixed grass prairie land shifted into a drier, more barren terrain. And then even further in, another shift and suddenly: pinnacles, spires, peaks and valleys of endless white rock. Arriving in the Badlands feels like you just landed on Mars! (well, imagine a less red version of Mars)
My most recent trip was in late September to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. This was an unexpected side trip after an already fun week long adventure in Yellowstone and the Black Hills National Forest.
The earth in the Badlands is like a shattered sculpture that crumbles in your hands. The rock represents layers of geological history embedded with fossils. To this day the region is seemingly desolate, but if you look closely you’ll see signs of life: a lone buffalo, a small herd of bighorn sheep, and the expansive maze of the prairie dog towns.
The Badlands deserve the name bestowed upon it by Native Americans and French fur trappers because back in the day, this was really bad land to travel across. With a rugged terrain, a lack of water, cold winters and hot summers, the region was nearly impossible to traverse.
The 244,000 acres were officially designated a national park in 1978 and if you’re anywhere in the region or checking out Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore, a trip to the Badlands is definitely worth it.
THE MOST INTERESTING PLACE: Simplicity & Stars
This 3 week adventure transformed my entire philosophy on travel. As I prepped for my upcoming trip to a remote region of the Amazon, I remember being so excited for what I thought would be a really cool and bad@$s experience. I envisioned lush forests and flocks of colorful parrots.** Mostly I was just excited to help and impact the lives of the indigenous people. But... none of that really happened. In reality, what made this trip so meaningful and interesting was the unexpected raw beauty, the spirit of the people, and the lessons I learned.
As our pair of boats slowly came upon the first signs of a village, I noticed a house. And then another. But these homes were not on the shore or even on land, they were on the water. With the ever changing water levels of the Amazon river, they built their small wooden houses to float on top of the water rather than face an endless risk of flooding.
Over the next couple weeks, we set up small medical clinics in several of the villages. Almost every time, the main medical complaints were parasitic worm infections. So we gave them anthelmintic medication, but at the end of the day it didn't really matter because they were going back to their lives where the river served as both a source of water and a toilet. What they really needed was equipment for water purification and education on the use of upstream water for drinking. All we did was provide a temporary fix.
Despite our failure to create a long term solution, what struck me was the simplicity of life and the kindness of the people. A local leader would often bring us bags of Brazil nuts.*** And each time I would greet someone and speak in Brazilian Portuguese, they would get so excited that I took the time to learn their native language. In the afternoons, we saw men sitting outside drinking beer and one village even had a small outdoor pool table. Despite our different lives, we were still the same in many ways.
At night, we slept on the boats with hammocks as our beds. I was surrounded by the cacophonous sound of snoring by my travel mates but as darkness fell, I was in awe of the incredible beauty up above. The night sky was filled with an infinite array of stars in this region so far from the effects of light pollution.
I set out on this journey with the mission to help. But I learned that to really create long term change, you need to stay a while. You need to gain trust and ask questions. There’s no doubt that traveling is about adventure and fun, but I was deeply humbled by this trip when I discovered that I had much more to learn than to give. And I found beauty where I least expected it.
** Didn’t see a single colorful bird! Not one.
*** If you get a can of mixed nuts here in the US, you’re lucky if you get ONE Brazil nut, right??
THEMES TO EXPLORE
In addition to fueling the fire of wanderlust in our readers (which is definitely a goal!) I’d like to explore 2 major themes on this adventure: our Human Story and our Living Planet.
Our Human Story
I plan to combine that lesson from the story above with my experience in both journalism and public health and apply it to every destination. Whether I’m at each location for a day, a week or a month (I honestly don’t know how this job will work?!) it doesn’t matter - I want to focus on the people: What can we learn? And give?
I want to know what drives you to get up in the morning? What are cultural practices that help your everyday life in terms of happiness, physical and mental wellness? My vision for this project is that some of the stories will become an ongoing international version of “Smarter Living.”
I’d like to explore gender roles, the building of cultural bridges and ethnocentrism.
What roles do women play in this location and how is it different then men? Is this region welcoming and inclusive or do they have an inherent belief that their culture is superior to others?
How do they view Americans? Do they think we are ambitious, world leaders… complete morons? Do they even care? (these are the types of questions that float around in my mind)
There is so much we can learn from each other. Just think, yoga originated in India more than 5000 years ago. Now there’s every possible (and impossible) variation of this practice here in the US, from hip hop yoga... to goat yoga (can you believe it’s actually a thing?! Click HERE).
In Bhutan, the government actually measures “Gross National Happiness” with a constitution that promotes the creation of conditions that assist in its pursuit. In recent years, critics have questioned this theory finding the issue to be complex and difficult to measure, but it represents an innovative approach to wellness and serves as an example of the potential for global learning to ultimately create “smarter living.”
Our Living Planet
Beyond the beauty or intrigue of the location and the people that reside there, I also plan to explore the environmental impact. How is the climate, the pollution and the environment impacting the landscape, the ocean, and the conservation of species?
I wrote about the Amazon and the beauty of it’s remote location, but I believe that story is not complete without talking about the recent deforestation in the region. The demand for soy and other crops is leading large food companies to destroy forests deeper in the Amazon jungle despite previous efforts at conservation. And in India, for example, the story of the beauty of the Taj Mahal is tarnished by the reality that it’s also turning yellow because of chronic pollution.
As a storyteller, a travel writer, a journalist and public health expert, I would like to explore the themes of our human story and our living planet by seizing the opportunity to build cultural bridges, highlight local environmental issues, and promote policy change that might have a long term protective effect. Thank you very much for considering me for this position.
Photos by Sapna Parikh