Photos from Bethlehem

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Having been to Israel-Palestine, a part of me hurts whenever I read about violence in the region. This was true back in November 2012 and it’s true now as well. But since there are plenty of sources out there relating current events and this is a travel blog, I wanted to keep it simple by sharing some of the photos I took in Bethlehem two summers ago for this week’s post.
Although life in the West Bank is relatively better than that in Gaza, the basic yearning for freedom and peace amongst the Palestinians is the same. You can read more about this visit in my earlier post here.

5 Reasons Why You Must Visit Andalucía

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When I think of my travels in the southernmost region of Spain known as Andalucía, or Andalusia, a few things come to mind immediately like sunny days, white-washed buildings, glorious alcázars… I find myself daydreaming just writing about it. It’s an attractive destination for so many different reasons but here are five that should convince you to add it to your list. Immediately.

1. Affordability. Spain is overall cheaper than the rest of Western Europe—especially given its economic crisis—with Andalucía, the poorest region in the country, being the cheapest. As a tourist, this means that from accommodation and taxis to restaurants and sight-seeing, life is quite affordable despite the Euro being more expensive than the Canadian or American Dollar. Plus, if you are a student, remember to carry an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) as it will often allow you to pay a reduced fee or receive free entry to sites altogether. This is why there were days where my total expenses from eating and sight-seeing combined were not even €20!

2. History and architecture. Due to its strategic location, Andalucía has seen many empires come and go including the Romans, Visigoths, Byzantines and Moors before it became a part of the Kingdom of Castile. This means that the remaining sites today are not only historically fascinating but also very diverse from one another. The Moorish forts and palaces are especially remarkable for their design and undoubtedly, the jewels of Andalucía. Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Romani influences are spread throughout the region and can be seen in not only architecture but for example, literature and music as well leaving visitors with an incredibly rich experience.

3. Culture. A lot of the things that Spain is infamous for, such as flamenco and tapas, originated in Andalucía which makes experiencing them here feel more authentic. People in the south are also quite friendly, the atmosphere is relaxed and everyone just seems to know how to enjoy life. And speaking of enjoying life, are you ready for a fiesta? There are countless festivals every year and the towns definitely get into the celebrations. Some are seasonal, some religious, some musical and others are just plain fun. There is a list available here to help you get started and plan ahead; I made sure to visit Córdoba during the Patios Festival and you will not believe the photos when I post them.

4. Weather. May is a great time to be in Andalucía and I recommend it whole-heartedly. There aren’t too many tourists around yet and as the rainy season is over, there is only sunshine, sunshine and more sunshine. From a Canadian perspective, it is practically summer (spring) but locals say the real summer is during July and August where temperatures can easily soar into the 40’s if you are inland. The next best time to visit? Autumn. It’s still sunny—do clouds even exist here?—but both cooler and off-season.

5. Scenery. Okay, this one is partly a result of my obsession with Mediterranean settings and The Alchemist but there is no denying that this region is wonderfully picturesque. It varies from flat lands and coastal towns on the sea to rolling hills and mountain ranges like the rustic Sierra Morena and snowy Sierra Nevada. Throw in some pueblo blancos and countless olive groves in between shepherd flocks and you’ve got yourself a very Andalucían countryside. If nothing else, it also makes for lovely train rides.

6 Lessons From My First Solo Female Trip

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Two weeks have now passed since I returned home from my trip to Spain and Turkey. As the excitement of graduation and being with my family mixed with a wave of reverse culture-shock washes over, I find myself ready to start writing all about it. During those amazing six weeks abroad—that accidentally turned into seven but saving that story for another time—I learnt a lot about travel and especially about travelling as a solo woman. So, I thought it would be fun to begin by sharing some of the lessons that I feel will apply to any solo female traveller.

1. Getting out the door will be the hardest part. In contrast to my past travels that were affiliated with an organization, i.e. universities, putting this trip together was more stressful as I had to research and decide on everything myself. This led to overthinking at times. What if x happens? What if y goes wrong? Is z really the better option? Fortunately, I have found that you can prepare enough and the rest just sorts itself out on the road. Even the problems that arise are not as earth-shattering as we imagine they would be in our heads. It’s like that quote by Paulo Coelho: “the fear of suffering is far worse than the suffering itself.”

2. Hostels will give you travel buddies. The main disadvantage of hotels or Airbnb is that they can’t really provide the community that hostels can. Hostels allow you to meet other young travellers from all over the world who, just like you, are new to the city and excited to be there. There are a lot of other women travelling on their own too which means that it is easy to make, what I call, best friends for a day and go explore with other like-minded people. Plus, the staff are always there to answer your questions, offer tips and provide directions. Every hostel has its own character and there is no doubt that your travel experience can be infinitely better if you enjoy yours.

3. Most guys will hit on you. I get it. There is a young, single, “pretty” foreign girl—I put pretty in quotations as beauty is entirely subjective—who is, moreover, only around for a short time (read: no strings attached). Surely, any such girl or group of girls would attract attention from travellers or locals alike and this is true in Spain and Turkey as well. Like from the guy who works at the hostel. That guy staying at your hostel. Those guys you just met. That guy who works at the restaurant. That man who is way older than most of the girls around but will hit on them anyway. And most likely, they are not looking for friendship. Although it was all harmless in my experience and amusing at first, I did grow tired of it. Solution? Do bring a fake wedding ring to avoid unwanted attention.

4. Some people will feel sorry for you. This was a bit frustrating. While I was having the time of my life, I would come across other female travellers every now and then who would say something along the lines of, “oh, I could never do that but good for you!” Sometimes, it was a genuine compliment but sometimes, the tone implied “you’re crazy” at which point I tried my best to remain cordial. Some of the locals also felt bad for me but I didn’t mind as much. They were always friendly about it and often more hospitable as a result; this allowed me to learn more about their culture too. I do hope though that overtime, society will become more accepting of solo female travel and not see it as something that is a given impossible or [insert other stereotypes here].

5. You will get travel fatigue. While researching for this trip, I both read and heard that six weeks was long enough to expect weariness at some point and want familiar experiences yet I did not take it seriously. I loved travel, I thought. How could I get tired of it? But a month in, I so did. One week after arriving in Istanbul, I began to feel exhausted, apathetic to travel-related activities and even homesick; I may have also gotten mild food poisoning which did not help. Initially, I thought maybe I had simply become lonely but in hindsight, that was not it. After a couple of days of moping around, I finally decided to pursue the familiar experience and went to the movies. Now, perhaps it was my Marvel obsession or Hugh Jackman but I really enjoyed X Men: Days of Future Past and felt increasingly uplifted. Something just clicked and by the time I left the cinema, it was like my old, happy, energetic self had come back to me! I began enjoying myself again and Istanbul is now my favourite city out of everywhere I have been. So, moral of the story: if you find yourself facing travel fatigue, relax for a few days and try doing something super normal that you enjoy back home. You will get better if you keep trying, I promise.

6. It will be one of the most liberating experiences you have ever had. Despite some of the challenges, solo female travel is definitely worthwhile and gives you a sense of freedom like nothing else. You can choose where you want to go and what you want to do everyday. It is true that only you will ever know about all the wonderful things that you have seen since no one else shared the whole experience with you. Nevertheless, realizing that you somehow managed all of this on your own is incredibly empowering and I strongly believe that every woman should travel alone at least once.

¡Saludos desde Sevilla!

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Greetings from Sevilla! An update is long overdue here but I’ve been so busy enjoying the city that I find it impossible to sit down and try to reflect! But how’s Sevilla, you may ask? It’s beautiful! The summer weather, orange trees, lovely architecture, friendly people, endless cafés and restaurants… there’s not much to dislike! Over the past few days, I’ve seen several sights including Plaza de España, the Metropol Parasol and earlier today, the Cathedral and Giralda. Other travellers I’ve spoken to about this all agree that somehow, it is so easy to feel at home here and being in Spain amazes me everyday.

I am not sure when I will post again as I feel like writing about a trip after returning from it may be more my style. Nevertheless, it will be good when I do—and far more detailed, I promise—so keep an eye out! In the meantime, here’s a brief video from the amazing flamenco show that I saw last night. Adíos!

To New Adventures

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In a little over two weeks, I will write the final exam of my undergraduate studies. University has been such a challenging yet exciting experience and I am grateful for so many things that have happened over the past four years. However, it is also true that at this point, my mind is tired of academia and since it has been more than a year since I last travelled, every part of me longs for an adventure. So, as a graduation gift to myself, I had been looking into going to Europe and just recently made the leap by booking my tickets to two countries: Spain and Turkey.

Admittedly, I had a couple panic attacks following the purchase but that anxiety eventually passed. My amazing sisters and friends encouraged me and having specific dates allowed me to do more solid research and begin making my itinerary. But why did I choose these two places? Both of them have actually been at the top of my list for a long time because of their culture, architecture and Islamic history. In fact, I was first drawn to Spain because of Andalusia and that is where my journey will start.

I will spend the first three weeks of May backpacking in Spain and see Sevilla, Granada, Madrid, Cordoba, Barcelona and Malaga before flying to Istanbul and remaining in Turkey for the next three weeks. I have not yet made plans outside of Istanbul as I feel like I could happily remain there the whole time but I will look into tours, perhaps to Cappadocia and Antalya, once I am on the ground.

I am beyond thrilled for this trip and learn something new through my research everyday. For example, I skimmed Lonely Planet’s Spain yesterday and ended the night by watching Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988); originally known in Spanish as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios. The film was quite amusing and reminded me a little bit of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961).

On a side note, posts on my Middle Eastern trip will be on hold until I can do them justice in the future. In the meantime, if you have suggestions for any of the places that I am heading to, do let me know! Reach you next time, from Sevilla.

The photo used above is adapted from the original found here.

Bethlehem and Ramallah

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My visit to the West Bank was rather spontaneous. One of the girls in our apartment was telling us about the tour she would be taking the following day and when she invited me, I declined at first. I was definitely interested in going but I figured I could plan a trip later on when I had more time. Yet, for some reason, delaying it did not feel right and I found myself thinking, why not now? How would going another day be any different? Unable to come up with a satisfactory answer, I changed my mind and with “no time like the present” as my mantra, I happily joined her.

The next morning, a cab drove us from downtown Jerusalem to the Bethlehem checkpoint at the Separation Wall. Having spent the past few days surrounded by beautiful ancient sites and stone buildings, the grey cement barrier seemed stunningly out of place in comparison. As we drew closer to it in the queue, I remember thinking how sad it was that such a structure, designed for exclusion, existed in the Holy Land. Upon passing through, we were greeted by a lively Palestinian guide and began our tour in a small group after literally stopping to smell the flowers nearby; they were jasmines.

Walking along the Wall on this side was quite interesting because of the graffiti that covered it. The artwork created by Banksy in particular was simple yet always thought provoking; my favourites were the protestor throwing a bouquet of flowers and the girl being lifted by balloons. Meanwhile, our guide explained the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on everyday life in the West Bank and the Asian ladies in our group made everyone laugh by repeating yalla now and again.

Our path soon brought us to Aida Refugee Camp and in one of the alleys, we came across some of the cutest children playing together. Through our guide, we were able to ask them for pictures but standing beside them, I felt a mixture of happiness and sadness. Although their joy was very infectious, the thought of them spending childhood in such circumstances was troubling. I wondered what their life would be like when they grew up. Would they still be happy? I do not know. After stopping at a shop that sold an assortment of handmade items and displayed old keys to buildings that perhaps no longer exist, we saw some of the youth in the Camp. There was also a small exhibit in one of the rooms where a quote by a sixteen-year old girl read, “my dream is to succeed in, and complete my studies.”

During the rest of the tour, we went to the lovely Church of the Nativity—I took a great photo with a Greek Orthodox priest who wore a stern expression in contrast to my amused one—and the Church of St. Catharine beside it. We then had an amazing lunch before heading to Ramallah. On the road, we drove past settlements, our guide sang “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” and bought us carob juice from a brilliantly dressed vendor. Being in Ramallah felt a little different than Bethlehem in that Ramallah has more of a city vibe. Arguably, one of the best places around is a cafe called Stars and Bucks that deserves a visit for the title alone. Over a very sweet but much needed frappucino, I looked out the window at the busy road below and found myself once again marvelling at Middle Eastern traffic norms.

Seeing the West Bank was a great experience for many reasons but foremost, I began to gain a deeper understanding of the human side of the conflict which is very important because we tend to forget that there are people who have to live in it every day on both sides of the Wall.

Remembering Jerusalem

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Ever so often, I remember that I have been to a certain place and the thought that this is a fact about my life always makes me smile. The amazing opportunity to visit Jerusalem came my way two summers ago and taking it was one of the best decisions I ever made. Through an exchange, I participated in an intensive two-week course at a local university. This meant that while my mornings were spent in class, my evenings and weekends were free to explore the city and by arriving early, I gave myself a head start on doing just that. I could write about Jerusalem endlessly since there were many things that I loved about it but here are some of the highlights that made my travel experience so incredible:

1. The Old City. Obviously! Jerusalem is an ancient city and due to its importance in the three Abrahamic faiths, it is very rich in religious history. Hence, there are plenty of sights to see and a lot of them are within the walls of the Old City which features four rough quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian. I visited the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Other sights include the Tower of David, the Hurva Synagogue and the list goes on. Many are fascinating for architectural and cultural reasons too so it is not necessary to be religious to enjoy seeing them. In fact, most are open to all visitors—the main exception to this then was the Temple Mount—but it is important to follow the attire and behavioural expectations for the religious sites should you wish to go in.

Another lovely aspect about the Old City is its bazaar or markets. You name it, there is probably a shop that sells it. From food, which I will elaborate on later, to religious items, pottery, clothes, scarves, shoes, bags, suitcases, ornaments, lamps, pillows, jewellery and various memorabilia, you can spend hours shopping and wandering in the cobblestone streets. Haggling is the norm and the vendors are more than used to foreigners so language is usually not a problem. Trying not to enter every single shop, on the other hand, can be.

2. The Mount of Olives. Like the Old City, several sites of religious significance are located on the Mount of Olives. This actually tends to be a pattern in Jerusalem overall because wherever you go, you are bound to be standing around something of some significance. The Mount is also famous for its breathtaking views. Since it is located opposite the Old City, it is a great lookout point and provides beautiful photos of Jerusalem; the one used in this post was taken from here as well.

3. Food. If I weren’t South Asian, Middle Eastern cuisine would probably be my favourite and so, eating in Jerusalem was a pleasure. I had many okay-this-is-the-best-one-ever shawarmas, albeit the winner has to be the one I had in the Old City, and I turned into a falafel lover. Falafel was one of the only Middle Eastern foods I can think of that I had disliked as I remembered the falafel itself as being dry and bland. However, I ended up trying a sandwich from an Arab shop near campus and I was totally converted. I also enjoyed grocery shopping in West Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market where vendors sell fruits and vegetables, bread, pastries—one word: bourekas—sweets and other items in a souk style. There are various halal and kosher restaurants as well along with bakeries and cafés and the hummus here is divine. Thus, eating and sight-seeing my way through the city was easily accomplished.

4. Weather. Jerusalem’s climate is very pleasant and the weather was not what I expected for a Middle Eastern city; especially in July. It was hot during the day, although temperatures usually remained within the 20’s, and cool at night. There was rarely any humidity or clouds, and definitely no rain. This meant that I woke up every single day to beautiful blue skies and the sunshine which literally, felt so good.

5. Transportation. Getting around Jerusalem was fairly easy as I could walk, take the bus, a taxi or hop on the light rail. Admittedly, being from Toronto, I am bound to prefer the public transportation system anywhere else but I liked that the bus drivers gave you change if you had bigger coins and you could use the transfer on your ride back. There is also a Central Bus Station in Jerusalem whence you can take Greyhound-esque intercity buses and this was very useful when I was later heading to Petra.

6. Security. Although I was a bit concerned beforehand, I had quite a safe experience not only in Jerusalem but throughout my trip which included cities in the West Bank—more on this next time—and as far as I know, the same holds true for my peers. Someone explained tourism in the region to me by saying that essentially, there is an ebb and flow. Whenever the overall conditions are relatively calm, there is a surge of tourists but if the situation tenses, there is a decline. I was actually surprised at the beginning of my trip by the sheer number of tourists around. Of course, spontaneous events may occur so one has to be mindful of that. Nevertheless, the day-day interactions between locals seem ordinary in that they go about their business and most were as friendly as anywhere else; happy to give directions, tips on where to go or just chat about life.

Other fond memories of my stay in Jerusalem include going out after Shabbat, hearing a live adhan, attending a film screening in the Jerusalem Film Festival and finding stray cats in almost every alley. Somehow, in the middle of all of this, a couple of weeks went by in the blink of an eye but looking back, it’s amazing how much I learned and experienced in that short time.

A Day in Amsterdam

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The Netherlands
As we drove away from Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands seemed pleasantly familiar; like a greener and more European relative of Canada. To make the most of the few hours that I had in Amsterdam, before my connecting flight in the late afternoon, I had signed up for a car tour. Our first stop was the Riekermolen windmill near Amstelpark. Windmills, as well as tulips, have become symbols of the Netherlands but while tulips gained popularity among the Dutch because of their appearance, the presence of windmills was due to practical reasons. Given that most of the country is either at or below sea level, flooding was, and still can be, a major problem. Hence, windmills were built as they could be used to drain water from the land. Today, the Riekermolen is popular among tourists largely due to its proximity to the city.

Heading towards central Amsterdam, a few things stood out immediately. There were many small flower shops around, for example, but more strikingly, bicycles were everywhere. In fact, I would later see a huge multi-story bike garage near the river. In Dam Square, located in the historic part of the city, I saw sights like the Royal Palace and the National Monument which was built in memory of the victims of World War II. Growing up in North America, we study the World Wars as part of our school curriculum but thinking about them while you are in Europe is something else because these are the countries where the violence took place.

On a lighter note, the best part about the city for me was its architecture and the canals. Amsterdam has a huge canal system and for this reason, it is often called the “Venice of the North.” There are many lovely houses and cafés lined by trees on either side of the canals, as well as boathouses, which make the setting quite picturesque. My tour ended with a short tourist boat ride that began on the Amstel river before going through some of these canals. Although experiencing them in a smaller boat would have been more personal, it was still wonderful to be right in the middle; literally.

Next time, I would love to explore Amsterdam on foot and visit other parts of the Netherlands but nevertheless, given the tight schedule, this was a great introduction to a beautiful city. Amsterdam will always be special for me as it is the very first European city that I visited and it kicked off what would soon become, some of the best weeks of my life.

How to Beat Travel Withdrawal

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To my three followers who are thinking, “there is writing on this blog?” There is now! Or, more likely, you have forgotten that you followed in which case, hey there! My blog has been inactive for a while simply because I have not travelled in months. This is something my wanderlust keeps reminding me of. For those of you like me that have caught wanderlust, i.e. a constant desire to travel and explore the world, your life is probably a lot like this. That list is hilariously accurate—number five, admit it—as is number nine about travel withdrawal.

Not travelling or thinking about travel was more or less the norm in my life. I always wanted to but did not really have the opportunity to do so until about two summers ago. I went on a short academic exchange to Jerusalem and like several of my peers, completely fell in love with travel. I will make posts about my time there soon, and all the other places that I have been to since then, to accompany the photos, but for now, I will just say that it was an absolutely amazing experience. Meeting new people, exploring the streets, seeing ancient sites, tasting new foods… I had no idea what I was missing out on! Hence, returning to routine was difficult as naturally, all I could think about was the trip that I had just taken. It was as if I had seen the forms but now had to return to living in the cave—hello, Aristotelian reference from my second-year political theory class—and although I settled in eventually, sweet memories of the places I’ve been are always there. As someone else put it, “once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over gain in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”

And as much as we would like to, most of us cannot be travelling all the time. Sooner or later, we become stationary somewhere because of say, the new school semester or financial reasons—as most of what you owned has been spent on globe-trotting and now it is time to earn again—or whatever the case may be. So, what do you do when you start feeling the restlessness or blues of not travelling? Since sighing every time you see or hear an airplane is unproductive, the following are a few general suggestions, in no particular order, based on what helps me and given that they may help someone else, why not share?

1. Live through other people. Usually, this is a bad idea but it is helpful in this context. What I mean to say is, find other travellers! For me, this can be my friends on Facebook or bloggers who are currently exploring a part of the world that I am interested in; and by that I mean any part of the world at all. Seeing their photos and reading about their experiences is fun and it makes those places more real, if you will. Not only can this be inspiring but it also becomes a form of research for future travels of my own. For example, I might find tips about affordable accommodations or sites to see that I had previously not heard about. My favourite blogger for a while has been Liz Carlson and you can find her at Young AdventuressSimilarly, I follow travel accounts like @RoughGuides and @lonelyplanet and they often tweet cool photos and articles.

2. Live through TV, film and books. This is similar to above except that it is a more visual experience. Since my wanderlust began, I have become a big fan of travel shows on television. Every now and then, I will go through my Guide and if the program seems interesting and it is set somewhere else in the world, I will record it. From Rick Steves’ Europe and Monty Don’s Around the World in 80 Gardens to various National Geographic episodes and other documentaries, there is always something on. Likewise, there are many travel movies or films and books. In the former category, my favourite is Roman Holiday (1953) which stars Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Most recently, I watched Into the Wild (2007) and re-watched Eat, Pray, Love (2010) because of Julia Roberts and well, Javier Bardem. In books, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is hands down, one of the best. If you have wanderlust, it will speak to you like no fiction ever has.

3. Write about your travels. Instead of focusing on where you have not been, focus on where you have been! Since you probably go through your travel photos on a regular basis anyway, why not share the stories behind them? As mentioned earlier, I am currently working on blog entries for the places that I have been and I genuinely enjoy doing this. It reminds me of all the adventures I have had and the result is instant gratitude. Of course, you can keep your writings to yourself and even choose other types of creative outlets such as songs, poems, art, scrap-booking and so forth. Whatever works for you. If writing is intimidating, remember this beautiful quote by Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit at a typewriter and bleed.”

4. Find another hobby. You know how time goes faster when you are doing something you enjoy? Exactly. Take up knitting if you must but pursue another project. I find that volunteering in my community is a great outlet because I am able to help others and in doing so, I am reminded of all the blessings I do have.

5. Prepare for your next trip. Having another destination in mind, or the time period that will you be able to travel in next, is great as it provides you with a goal. If the latter is not clear, just do little things that will help you whenever you are able to make the opportunity to get away. Do background research on the regions you wish to visit, bookmark webpages and above all, add to your travel fund. Even if it is a dollar every week, that’s one dollar closer to Rio, Istanbul or Kyoto. There is also Pinterest with travel boards and pins galore where you can create collections of the places you want to see or the things you would like to do there.

6. Explore your own city. I know, I know. Depending on where you live, the success of this alternative will vary but keep in mind that travel is not limited to places across the ocean. You can explore other cities around you too that may be accessible via public transportation or car. Admittedly, this is the avenue that I have explored the least but I am mindful of it. I apply it by, for instance, choosing a new restaurant over a familiar one or a different shopping district than the one I am used to (window) shopping in. The purpose is to continue having new experiences wherever you are.

On a final note, it is important to recognize that the effectiveness of this list is restricted in that it will, and should, only help you for so long. Eventually, there is no other remedy for travel withdrawal than to get back on the road. Nevertheless, by following some of these strategies, the interim period should become more than just the “buffering” part of your life and can be spent in a happier fashion.

If you have any comments or tips that help you get through travel withdrawal, do share below! I would love to hear from you.