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There and Back Again: Sharing Your Travel Abroad Experience

November 19, 2012

Times Square after presenting my research paper on HIV and Traditional Healing

There is nothing like coming home after a long trip. Whether you are overjoyed to see your family or sad to leave new friends behind, the adventure is not over yet. Over the next few days/weeks/months, you will spend hours rehashing your trip to friends, parents, grandparents, acquaintances on the street, peers in crowded hallways. No matter what your experience, one question remains, “How was it?”

In my experience, when someone asks you “how was your trip?” you have about 5 minutes. Longer with family members, significant others, but for the most part “it was great!” is all you have time to squeeze out before seeming long-winded.

My problem was when anyone asked, “How was Africa?” I would spend my 5-10 minutes explaining what was wrong with that question to begin with (ie. I actually went to Kenya, not Africa, Africa is not a country…) and by the time I started to divulge into how it actually was, the eyes were already glazed over. My friend Aaron went on a two year missionary trip to Arizona and experienced the same thing, where “how was it?” referred to the last two years of his life.  How do you answer the question, “How were the last two years of your life?”. While you might have spent weeks or months abroad, you will not have that same amount of time for cathartic conversations back at home.

So what can you do to reflect and make the most of your trip even after your story abroad has come to a close?

Write about It:

The most obvious answer to this would be to start a blog, as Quinn and I have done at The Passport Epilogues. However if you do not feel like you have the time or enough material, consider being a guest writer. Many blogs, including ours, welcome guest posts to provide new dynamic angles, cultural encounters the writers haven’t had, and it’s a perfect way highlight a great experience or epiphany. Other sites will publish articles about your travel experience and pay you too! Matador Network will pay you 25 dollars or more for your unique travel experiences. Soon you will have a captive audience and a little extra cash. Barrel Hopping is another website that host frequent contests for travel stories and photos. The winning story and photo gets 50 dollars and its based off social media shares and likes. Not only will this pass your story or photo further, you could win money to keep on adventuring!

 Find Like-Minded People:

While friends and family are the obvious choice, there are other people who might understand your experiences than they do. One incredibly useful resource I discovered was my professors. After returning from Kenya, I contacted a few of my old professors who worked in the fields of cultural psychology, international volunteering, and mental health, and asked if I could come in and speak to them about my experiences and focus my thoughts. Not only were they helpful in asking detailed questions I hadn’t thought of before, they were enthusiastic to discuss something other than yesterday’s pop quiz. These professors are great references and good friends, and I even ended up going to New York to present my research because of a conversation with one of my psychology professors.

Professors or others in a teaching role can also provide a medium for you to share experiences with your peers. Ask to help lead a facilitated discussion, seminar, or do short presentation for a relevant class. It’s great experience and will give you an academic outlet to share your experience. This is the same for local organizations and non-profits that would benefit from a new experience or a fresh take on a subject.

Think about It:

If you only have 5 minutes to share your experience or make an impression, think about what you want that person to walk away with. This is particularly important if you visit a country where we already have set perceptions of here in the USA, such as Kenya. So when people asked, “How was it? Did you see a giraffe?” I was sure to say, “Yes, but actually the best part of my trip was meeting the people there! I learned a lot about global citizenship and the impacts of international volunteering!” Not the most exciting answer but I’d rather people not walk away with the idea that Kenya is worth visiting because of giraffes. So think about the best experience you had, a life lesson you learned, or a single story that sums up what the trip meant to you and what you learned. Make those minutes count.

 What was it like coming back home for you? How did you share your experiences with family and friends?


Impulse and Adventure

November 15, 2012

A certain degree of caution is a good thing. If you’re going to cross the street, look both ways first. If you’re in the car, you don’t stand to gain anything by “living life on the edge” and forgoing the seatbelt. Maybe you have a little buyers remorse from spending your college fund on that set of gold-plated lawn gnomes. But short of being stupid, one of the best ways to add some excitement to your life is to make impulsive decisions. Travel itself is is a foray into the unknown – a calculated risk to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and experience new things by literally surrounding yourself with them. Your travel experience is full of exciting risks, and here is why I think you, dear reader, are capable of taking bigger impulsive leaps than you might have thought.

Let’s start small. There is a fast-food restaurant in Japan called Nakau. To give some background, it can be found all over the country and is about as prolific as McDonald’s is in the United States. Their official site is here, although it’s all in japanese, so here is a link to an english review of one of their Sapporo locations. I never visited Sapporo personally but the experience sounds identical. Anyway, their menu system, while not uncommon in Japan, is something I haven’t run into in America. The menu is near the entrance, where you insert money into a vending machine, press the button of your order, and out pops a ticket that you give to the front desk. Take a number, sit down, and wait for them to bring you your food.

Nakau became one of my favorite restaurants when I was there. Not just because I was on a budget and 290 yen for a  beef bowl sounded amazing, but because their menu had very few pictures and there was no english language option, so I never new what I was ordering until it arrived. Taking these kinds of risks is exciting because the worst you stand to lose is about $3.50 on a meal you really shouldn’t expect to be five-star in the first place. A case like this – ordering food while effectively illiterate – is a fun lesson in impulsiveness and taking joy in the unknown.

Now let’s kick it up a notch with a story of an adventure I had during the beginning of my trip to Japan. Due to flight arrangements, I had to show up about ten days before my program actually started. It would have been simple to make a few online bookings and proceed according to a plan, but why do that when there is a new country to explore? Instead I hopped from Osaka to Nara to Kyoto on a no-reservations hostel adventure. Not knowing where you’re going to stay more than a few hours before you stay there requires you to be open, flexible, and embrace adventure. This is typically better when operating alone, since not only does it make you more flexible, but when you make a mistake it just becomes part of the adventure. If you miss a train now you get to walk and explore. If you were with someone else you might feel like you’ve screwed up and let them down. If you do go with someone else, make sure you pick a good traveling partner (which we may do another how-to post on later) who is also willing to go with the flow. I like traveling alone, but I understand this isn’t always the way to go. Especially for women, where wandering in a foreign city alone at night isn’t such a cavalier decision.

Now let’s analyze the actual magnitude of this type of risk-taking. This was a very strong push outside of my comfort zone that involved relinquishing just about all control I had over my situation. Was it risky? Very. But was it dangerous? No – and that’s where the balance lies in my opinion. Think of the most you could possibly lose, and decide if it’s worth it. In my case, the most I stood to lose was a good night’s sleep, and I was willing to gamble that in exchange for an adventure.

Having to duck into the covered gate of one of Kyoto’s many temples for the night would have been uncomfortable, yes, but not terribly dangerous. I also did this in a country with notably low levels of violent crime or theft. And, finally, I’m a guy, which unfair though it may be, makes it statistically safer choice to make without a traveling buddy. And as it turned out, it all worked out for the best for me and I met a lot of interesting people. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I took another week to do it again in South Korea, and another ten days in Japan after my program was over.

I spent one of my vagabond days photographing the life around Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan. This shot helped remind me how much more interesting the world is when you approach it with that childlike sense of wonder and spontaneity. The theme would continue to resonate during my time in the monastery and the Buddhist teaching of “present mindfulness.”

The comfort zone is, by definition, a comfortable place to be. But stepping outside of that is the reason I love travel so much, and I try to make that decision last throughout the entire trip. It’s more than just making the decision to go on the first place. If you search for the excitement in these sorts of safe-risk situations it will serve not only to make your experiences more memorable, but it will also greatly increase your confidence. And if you can embrace those moments abroad, then it is comparatively easy to live your life at home like an adventure as well, albeit a less exotic one.

The Passport Epilogues, now with a wider audience!

October 30, 2012

One of our articles at The Passport Epilogues was recently published at Matador Network! Matador is an independent media company and the largest independent travel publisher online, with over 2 million unique monthly visitors.

Check it out here!

Comments are welcome!

Culture Spotlight on a Kenyan Hospital: Good Health is Your Choice

October 24, 2012

For this week’s culture spotlight, I wanted to take a moment to highlight a Kenyan medical facility, Homa Bay Hospital. As our perceptions of Sub-Saharan Africa is shaped by high rates of disease, I thought it was appropriate. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures as it would have been highly disrespectful to take any. However, I did find a video in the Daily Nation about Kenyan doctors returning to work after a 10 day strike and it’s a good representation on how the Homa Bay Hospital looked.

Road-side shops dotted the road up to the hospital. It was a large area with many light blue buildings with open hallways between each building. I noticed the phrase “Huduma Bora Ni Haki Yako” was painted on the walls of nearly every room and hallway in the hospital. It means “Good health is your choice” in Swahili. It’s fitting to address the concern that many Africans choose not to seek treatment for various illnesses, such as HIV, but after walking through the hospital, the disadvantages are apparent.

The hospital was clean and kept up with 280 beds, 30 of which are located in the maternity ward. Lights were kept off during the day as much of the hospital was in the open air, with walls not quite reaching up to the ceilings. Everywhere, there were stickers and signs for AIDS awareness “Discuss AIDS, save your life”, malaria medication, tuberculosis, and various other illnesses. Prices were painted on the walls like menus, 200 shillings (2 American dollars) for an x-ray, 500 shillings to deliver a baby. They have an open-air operating room.

We had the privilege of sitting down with the principal of the hospital, as well as a nurse.  The hospital primarily treats malaria, tuberculosis, with incidents of road accidents, HIV/AIDS, and diabetes on the rise. There is no mental health program currently and most patients treat these illnesses traditionally which the hospital does not support. As a district hospital, patients will be referred to a larger city like Kisumu or Nairobi if the illness is beyond their capacity, a specialist is needed, or they need an ICU. As an institution, they receive employees that are assigned by the government and as a result, they are understaffed with a high turn-over rate. Nurses do most of the work because of this problem.

The principal was very adamant about the fact that the hospital does not work or associated with traditional healers, nor do they work with midwives. He condemned traditional healing practice by saying “they just don’t work”.  According to WHO, 80% of Africans rely on traditional healing so I wonder how much of the population is under-served because of this ideology and how that impacts disease prevention. (These initial thoughts eventually led to a research paper which I will blog about at a later time).

Some patients have to travel as far as 28 kilometers to receive help. The government does its best to supply prescription medication, mostly imported from other countries. He said they also receive boxes of expired or nearly expired medication from the United States and other countries. As a doctor, he was insulted at the idea he would give his patients expired medication. Here is just one of the many flaws with foreign aid, the idea that we don’t want it, but Africa will take it. Even after reading my own worlds, the open operating room, the heavily under-staffed hospital, and I think to myself, what can we do to help? What have we done to help? We donate clothes, knit blankets, collect donations, and send over medical doctors and interns. All of it is well-meaning but sometimes, it’s not all positive.

Let’s think about the costs of a college student interning or volunteering at a medical hospital in a developing world like Kenya. Their plane ticket for starters. I’m going to assume they are paying for food and boarding. But who is going to train this student? A nurse or doctor would have to teach them, train them, consent to be shadowed which takes away from time they could spend treating patients. In addition, the cost of training and caring for this individual does not go back into their “economy” so to speak. The student will return to the United States with a brighter resume, but with the cost of training this student, the facilities could have been used to train a native doctor or nurse, who would stay at the hospital, have a job, get an education, which would provide money for their family, and continue to treat Kenyan patients. With this in mind, I am not saying volunteering in another country in this setting is not a worthwhile experience. Or that you couldn’t come out of it as a more active citizen. But these are things to keep in mind when we think of how to best help a developing country with the least amount of damage.

In addition, confidentiality and patient respect is another concern. Africans need better health care, clean drinking water, medicine, trained doctors, etc, in order to save the many lives affected by AIDS, malaria, and other diseases of poverty. But when I visited another health clinic in the village, the record books with every patient who had visited the clinic in the last two years was handed to us to look through. Would this happen in the United States, somebody walks into the clinic and looks through your records or sits in the room with you? Why do we think it’s ok for us to do so in a developing country? It’s hard for us to fight for better health care and practices in developing countries if we see no problem in ignoring human dignity and basic rights because it’s Africa. And had I not been told to look out for these things, I wouldn’t have caught it either.

It’s a grim picture but it’s necessary to recognize the problems before we work towards solutions. Short term, yes, Kenya needs immediate medical assistance. However, if we want to break a cycle of poverty and dependency in the long run, we need to devote more resources so that Kenyans may actually choose good health.

Post-Processed Paris Pictures

October 19, 2012

This image of the base of the Eiffel Tower in Paris is one of my most publicized pieces as well as one of the more controversial ones. Within the circle of amateur and semipro photographers I share my work with, I have encountered a variety of opinions on the use of editing software. I know not all of our readers are serious enough about their picture taking to bother with post-processing most of the time, but I’d like to share my stance on the subject anyway. I also know a lot of aspiring photographers who emphasize what they call the “purity” of the image, who feel like edited photos lose their original impact and that they need to achieve a unique look with the picture alone.

Now, I like the purity of certain pictures as well, and certainly don’t use effects like the Paris shot above on all or even most of my work. But there are all sorts of other ways to create a surreal looking photograph – through extreme depth of field, intentionally overexposing or underexposing an image, fisheye lenses, long exposure, etc. (Links are to introductory articles for those unfamiliar with the terms, and examples of some creative uses.) Since there are so many ways to distort reality in-camera, I don’t see post-processing as being any different. Some of the worlds greatest photographers spent plenty of time dodging and burning film photographs in the darkroom. Take Ansel Adams, for example; one of the world’s most celebrated photographers, whose photographs of Yosemite in the 1930s were arguably one of the driving forces behind the expansion of the National Park Service as we know it today. Working with digital photographs simply means working with a digital darkroom. There is absolutely such a thing as a photo that is overdone or that rides on fancy effects rather than skill or good technique, but that doesn’t mean a photographer shouldn’t experiment with different ways to bring out their own take on reality.
In this case, our eyes are capable of capturing a wider range of light than a camera, so in reality a person could probably make out some of the details that your average snapshot could not. The camera’s visualization of the subject as a silhouette is already a step away from reality. On the one hand, you could use post-processing to remove some of the shadows and bring it more in line without own perceptions. Or you cold go the other way and pump up those shadows for a really dynamic effect. Both are just another way of looking at things. At the end of the day every artist is just trying to share how they see the world, and we all have different ways to do it.

My main problem is, like I stated before, that some people rely on effects to make up for what would otherwise be a lackluster photo. It’s like cheesy effects-driven films. Adding CGI explosions only does so much to hide the fact that there is no plot or character development.
Likewise, since it is so much easier some people just click a button and are done with it. Take Instagram, for example. I actually happen to believe that there is a lot of value in those vintage effects to create a particular atmosphere. But if you’re taking a picture of yourself in the mirror with your cell phone, there is no logical reason why that picture should look like a 60s Polaroid. Hammers are very useful tools, but not when it comes to screwing in a light socket. Use your best judgment to decide whether the tool you’re about to use is actually the best one for the job.
Each edit should have a purpose that adds to the picture. Choosing to go black and white brings out textures and can help eliminate background distractions, for example. But not every picture looks best in black and white. The fact that editing is easier now doesn’t make it any less valuable. It just means it’s a little more prone to being used inappropriately.

Example of the levels adjustment tool in Adobe Photoshop. It’s a very quick and simple tool once you get the hang of it.

In my opinion, there is no single policy on editing that leads to universally better photography. But if you do edit, ask yourself whether it’s really necessary.

And if you don’t, give it a shot and see if it creates a result you appreciate. If you’re looking for a happy middle ground, I recommend finding software that includes levels adjustment. It gives you more freedom than a normal contrast editor, and most of the time it’s the only tool I use after it goes on my computer. It came with the 2008 copy of iPhoto that came free with my computer, so you don’t need some advanced, professional program to be able to use it.

Sorry today’s post was a little more technically oriented, but I’ve had discussions about it with both beginners and photographers who are much more successful than I am, so hopefully you can find some value in this post no matter what your experience level is.

Good luck!

Global Citizenship and the Boy Scouts

October 15, 2012

The Boy Scouts of America is an organization well known for local charitable involvement, and is one of the largest contributors of community service hours in the nation. After more than a decade in that group, volunteerism becomes second nature. I was fortunate enough to have been able to work my way all the way up to Eagle rank, the highest rank the BSA offers. Typically, the majority of that time is devoted to developing a strong moral foundation, since it encompasses the early teenage years where self-discovery is so important. After that, it teaches you a wide range of skills so you can figure out where your natural interests and talents are. Aside from the obvious hiking trips, the Boy Scouts educated me on things like photography, personal finance, sailing, engineering, fingerprinting, personal fitness and nuclear science. I’m only touching the surface here, but a more exhaustive list can be found on this wiki page.

Accepting a donation to work on my Eagle Project (a community service project required for the rank).

Many of the merit badge options are directed toward improving yourself, but the mission of the BSA is to help people take what they learn and direct it toward making a positive impact. Generally this is on a local level. Things like picking up trash or helping little old ladies cross the street. But what I want to focus on today is how scouting helped me apply that philosophy on an international level. Now, I haven’t yet figured out a way to pick up the garbage on the side of every highway on earth, although Maddy’s scholarship idea in her December 25thpost reminds me a lot of a service project applied on an international level, and I’ll definitely do my best to help her with that project however I can.

My Eagle Scout badge and my merit badge sash, featuring my Global Citizenship badge (second from bottom on the right).

What I mainly mean, though is that it helped shape a philosophy that in many ways served as the inspiration for our mission statement and list of goals: even if you never leave the country you can still take a big step on the path to global citizenship simply by adjusting your perspective and adopting a global mindset (although actual travel is still very much encouraged). By thinking of your daily actions in the context of how they impact the world on a whole, you can modify your lifestyle in such a way that you reduce your negative impacts and increase your positive ones.

Perhaps you are not eligible to join the boy scouts due to your location, gender or age, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be a valuable tool in learning how to structure your own behavior and attitudes. So I have a homework assignment for you.

The following is a transcript of the requirements for the Citizenship in the World merit badge, which is one of the prerequisites for earning your Eagle Scout rank. So Boy Scout or no, see if you have what it takes to earn one of their most important patches!

Citizenship in the World merit badge requirements
  1. Explain what citizenship in the world means to you and what you think it takes to be a good world citizen.
  2. Explain how one becomes a citizen in the United States, and explain the rights, duties, and obligations of U.S. citizenship. Discuss the similarities and differences between the rights, duties, and obligations of U.S. citizens and the citizens of two other countries.
  3. Do the following:

a. Pick a current world event. In relation to this current event, discuss with your counselor how a country’s national interest and its relationship with other countries might affect areas such as its security, its economy, its values, and the health of its citizens.

b. Select a foreign country and discuss with your counselor how its geography, natural resources, and climate influence its economy and its global partnerships with other countries.

  1. Do TWO of the following:

a. Explain international law and how it differs from national law. Explain the role of international law and how international law can be used as a tool for conflict resolution.

b. Using resources such as major daily newspapers, the Internet (with your parent’s permission), and news magazines, observe a current issue that involves international trade, foreign exchange, balance of payments, tariffs, and free trade. Explain what you have learned. Include in your discussion an explanation of why countries must cooperate in order for world trade and global competition to thrive.

c. Select TWO of the following organizations and describe their role in the world.

1. The United Nations

2. The World Court

3. World Organization of the Scout Movement

4. The World Health Organization

5. Amnesty International

6. The International Committee of the Red Cross


  1. Do the following:

a. Discuss the differences between constitutional and nonconstitutional governments.

b. Name at least five different types of governments currently in power in the world.

c. Show on a world map countries that use each of these five different forms of government.

  1. Do the following:

a. Explain how a government is represented abroad and how the United States government is accredited to international organizations.

b. Describe the roles of the following in the conduct of foreign relations.

1. Ambassador

2. Consul

3. Bureau of International Information Programs

4. Agency for International Development

5. United States and Foreign Commercial Service

c. Explain the purpose of a passport and visa for international travel.

  1. Do TWO of the following and share with your counselor what you have learned:

a. Visit the Web site (With your parent/guardian’s permission) of the U.S. State Department. Learn more about an issue you find interesting that is discussed on this Web site.

b. Visit the Web site (With your parent/guardian’s permission) of an international news organization or foreign government, OR examine a foreign newspaper available at your local library, bookstore, or newsstand. Find a news story about a human right realized in the United States that is not recognized in another country.

c. Visit with a student or Scout from another country and discuss the typical values, holidays, ethnic foods, and traditions practiced or enjoyed there.

d. Attend a world Scout jamboree.

e. Participate in or attend an international event in your area, such as an ethnic festival, concert, or play.

If anyone actually wants to take this seriously, I would be happy to act as your counselor. Technically speaking I’m not actually qualified to act as a merit badge counselor, but since you’re not actually earning it for real I think we can bypass those technicalities.

Elephant Dreams: Photo of the Week

October 12, 2012

This is the reason I studied abroad in Kenya in the first place. The allure of adventure, the prospect of new experiences, and of course, the exotic wildlife. It was the first thing I was asked after stepping off the plane, “What animals did you see?” and admittedly, it’s what comes to mind when one thinks of “Africa”.

I had thought I would have been more excited to see this elephant. After weeks in Kenya, we went on a safari and my excitement lasted as long as it took to snap this shot. It was a great experience, don’t get me wrong, but when thinking of my top 10, top 20 moments in Kenya, the safari is not even close. Not compared to the people I met, the relationships formed, or the things I learned. So if you ever get the opportunity to visit Kenya or Sub-Saharan Africa, I encourage you to look past the elephant.

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