On February 27, 2018, our plane touched down at Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport outside of Belize City, Belize. Within the hour, I was stamped into my twenty-fifth country. There was no fanfare to accompany the thump of the ink hitting my passport. No banner dropped from the ceiling to celebrate the milestone. No new revelation hit me as part of the 25+ club. At the time, I was more concerned with helping my mom and sister clear customs, finding our rental car agency, and getting this newest adventure underway.
The more I reflected on it, though, the more significant the milestone became to me. I began to recognize how much the places I have been privileged to visit and the experiences I have had in each one have shaped the person I have become. Discovering a love of travel, and actively pursuing it, changed the course of my life. It has influenced my professional choices, provided some of my strongest friendships, expanded my worldview, and grown my confidence, flexibility, problem-solving skills, and cultural sensitivity. It’s hard to imagine where or who I would be now had that pesky, welcome, wonderful wanderlust not come calling for me.
Each of my first twenty-five countries has impacted me in its own unique way. Today, I want to share with you some of the things I’ve learned over my past sixteen years of international travel. It’s a small sample, minuscule in comparison to the history, culture, and depth of these nations. The lessons to be learned in each are innumerable, but my hope in sharing these few is that you will be fondly reminded of your own adventures or inspired to embark on new ones.
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1. ) Bahamas (2002)
I only visited the Bahamas for a single day while on a Disney cruise with my family, but it was enough for me to learn how beautiful and exciting travel outside my home country could be… and that I wanted more of it.
2.) Mexico (2004)
As I purchased a handmade doll from a street vendor in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, I learned the joy of speaking with someone in her own language. It was my first time truly employing my high school Spanish, and the woman’s giggly smile as I muddled through our conversation encouraged me to continue pursuing the language through college and beyond.
3.) Panama (2007)
I learned the importance of family in Latin culture while in Panama for my friend’s grandparents’ 50th-anniversary festivities, and also that there’s unlimited fun to be had with a big crowd of rowdy, celebrating Panamanians on a chiva party bus.
4.) Ecuador (2008)
It was while studying abroad in Ecuador that I first learned how a place can bury itself inside your heart so that you’ll ache to return there on an almost daily basis.
5.) Peru (2008)
In Peru, I learned that you can sit and stare out over the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu and never quite get enough of it.
6.) Canada (2009)
Traveling the vast expanses of Canada’s Yukon Territory, I learned that sometimes it’s a glorious thing to feel very, very small and very, very alone.
7.) Chile (2010)
After an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern Chile and shook us up in Valparaiso, I learned to believe in the kindness of strangers. I’ll never forget the owners of a powerless internet cabina who went out of their way to help connect us with our worried families in the States.
8.) Argentina (2010)
In western Argentina, I learned the hard way that if you’re planning to drive the Ruta 40 south of Bariloche, you’d better spring for a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. Surviving flipping our car onto its side – and subsequently paying for the damage – also made me resolve to never again be without insurance coverage while renting cars abroad.
9.) Uruguay (2010)
Upon leaving Uruguay, I learned the importance of checking to make sure your passport has actually been stamped when crossing a border to prevent delays, fines, and general inconvenience.
10.) Brazil (2010)
In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I learned how to get around in a country where I don’t speak the language, and also that even if the Cristo Redentor is covered in scaffolding, it’s worth a trip to the top of the mountain for the breathtaking views.
11.) Haiti (2010)
While responding to the devastating earthquake in Cite Soleil, Haiti, I learned the true definitions of strength, fortitude, and generosity as we found ourselves being selflessly protected and cared for in an emergency by the very people we had come to help.
12.) Thailand (2011)
I learned what “paradise” means on the beaches of Thailand, but also how quickly the glimmer of paradise can fade in the face of the darker side of tourism.
13.) Laos (2011)
While tubing the Nam Song River in Laos, I learned how much of a party destination Southeast Asia can be. Thankfully, I also learned how easy it is to rent bicycles and explore the beauty outside of the bars.
14.) Vietnam (2011)
Vietnam was a humbling, non-stop learning experience as I saw the “American War” through the eyes of those who had once been our nation’s enemies, but who rarely gave us anything but a warm, friendly welcome.
15.) Cambodia (2011)
In Cambodia, I was amazed to witness how a people who had so recently experienced the absolute depths of human depravity had somehow found the strength and resilience to earn their country the nickname “The Land of Smiles.”
16.) St. Kitts and Nevis (2014)
I learned that there is nothing more joyful and freeing in St. Kitts than renting a motorbike from a dodgy shipping-container-turned-rental-office and whizzing around the island with the man you just married.
17.) Dominica (2014)
While taking a cooking class in the mountains of Dominica, I learned that nothing beats fresh, colorful, homemade Creole cooking … and that M is not to be trusted with the important task of slicing plantains at an angle for frying.
18.) Grenada (2014)
Disembarking in Grenada from our honeymoon cruise, I learned that it is well worth the cost to hire a boat to take you past Grand Anse to Morne Rouge beach. We had that paradise almost entirely to ourselves!
19.) Iceland (2016)
I learned how tourism can be both a blessing and a curse in Iceland, where the sudden boom brought new jobs and economic prosperity to a nation that had nearly gone bankrupt a few years before. Unfortunately, these changes came along with risk to priceless ecosystems and the disruption of the remote country’s quiet way of life.
20.) United Kingdom (2016)
In Scotland, I learned a new appreciation for the intelligence and agility of border collies, as well as the value of preserving traditions, as we witnessed an amazing sheep herding demonstration in Kincraig.
21.) Republic of Ireland (2016)
As we drove south through western Ireland, I learned that spontaneous detours can lead to unexpectedly delightful finds. When we caught sight of a castle in the distance and decided to chase it, we ended up experiencing a spectacular sunset on the Mullaghmore peninsula.
22.) Dominican Republic (2017)
I learned in the DR that, while all-inclusive resorts are nice to relax for a couple of days, they don’t really match my personal priorities and travel style in this season of my life.
23.) Czech Republic (2017)
In the Czech Republic, I learned the impact decades of upheaval can have on a cultural psyche. Spending long periods of time devoid of a homeland or lacking self-governance has left the Czechs a reserved but resilient people.
24.) Hungary (2017)
On our first night in Budapest, I was delighted to learn how right Hungarians are to be proud of their sophisticated, delicious cuisine. The fact that our dinner was accompanied by a fabulous string quartet only made the experience richer.
25.) Belize (2018)
Finally, I learned that Belizeans on the whole are perhaps the most genuinely kind and welcoming people I have had the honor to meet so far in my travels. Their wicked senses of humor and easy laughs make you feel immediately at home in the country of which they’re so proud.
So there they are – the first twenty-five! It was difficult to keep each section brief, as each of these countries – and its place in my heart – is worth so much more than one or two sentences and a photograph. Nevertheless, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey through time. It was a lot of fun to go back and revisit the photos and memories that accompanied each trip, and I was overcome by gratitude for the opportunities I have enjoyed, the people I have met, and the growth that I have experienced along the way. With that first milestone reached, I can’t wait to see which countries will make up numbers twenty-six through fifty! Stay tuned!
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What lessons have you learned while traveling?
Which places have had the biggest influence on the person you’ve become?
This list was first published on March 19, 2018 and last updated on March 15, 2021.
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