When I was younger, I never really had any aspirations to travel. My parents hadn’t done much traveling and they always made it seem like a luxury that only very wealthy people could afford. For these reasons it just wasn’t something that I thought about. That was until the middle of my senior year of high school. A couple of months before spring break, I got a message from Wes Adamson, a man who I have considered my mentor for as long as I’ve known him. He was leading a very small group of students on a ten-day trip to Ukraine over the break. One student had to drop out so there was an open spot and he wanted me to take it. I shrugged it off for a few days, thinking that I’d rather just head down to Florida and camp on the beach with some friends. Reluctantly, I told my parents about Wes’s offer. I expected them to say that it was too expensive, or that I couldn’t handle it, having never even been on a plane before. Instead, they were blown away by how cheap the trip was, thanks to connections in Ukraine. They nagged me for a few days and I finally decided to go for it. We put a rush on my passport and all of a sudden I was going to Ukraine, a country that I had barely even heard of until then.
In Ukraine, we spent a lot of time volunteering. We volunteered with children plagued by Post-Polio Syndrome, we (tried) to teach English in a university, we went to government meetings to encourage volunteerism and aid to the less-fortunate, and we even went on television to applaud the Kharkiv government for it’s efforts to promote this volunteerism (although looking back, we weren’t so sure that they weren’t just putting airs on for us…). Outside of that, we were taken to a few fancy events showcasing the arts and treating us like royalty (including an opera performance of Othello in which we all fell asleep…). We were also taken to favorite restaurants, museums and historical sites by friends and college students eager to join us. We stayed in dorms at night and ate almost all of our meals in their kitchen with them and the amazing cook that they provided us. We went to a couple of festivals, some magnificent cathedrals and bargain-hunted throughout various street markets. It was all so new and exciting to me and gave me the first taste of that amazing feeling after which this website is named.
During the trip, I fell in love with culture and languages. I loved using the few Russian and Ukrainian words and phrases that I learned, every chance that I got. I loved trying the new foods and learning about the different things that Ukrainians value. I also found a passion in working with kids through teaching drum lessons to the kids with Post-Polio Syndrome. And of course, as my mother loves to say, I got “bitten by the travel bug.”
Learning how to prioritize in travel.
Ukraine may not be a place on many travel lists, but it was for that reason that it was so appealing to me. It wasn’t a perfect European vacation, nor a backpacker’s mecca. It was a very imperfect place with amazing, optimistic people passionate about the future of their country. These factors are what has set the standard for the way that I travel now. We could have just gone to Ukraine with a list of places that we wanted to see. Sure, we’d have some nice pictures to show off, but we wouldn’t have had the real experiences afforded to us by relationships built with actual Ukrainians. It is these types of relationships that are the essence of my passion for travel today. There is nothing that drives my love for travel more than interacting with the people. No exciting story I could write nor photo nor video that I could show off outweighs what I’ve learned from listening and forging real relationships with real people. Instead of concrete plans, I listen to what these people tell me to eat, where to stay and what to experience. I still keep in touch with friends from Ukraine, as well as almost every other country that I have ever been to. I owe so much to my Ukrainian friends for instilling in me a love for different cultures and getting to know the people of the countries that I visit.
The situation in Ukraine today.
This article could not be justly written without mentioning the difficult situation my Ukrainian friends now live with in their country. In the years since I visited, Russia has invaded the country numerous times and turned Ukrainians against each other, sparking bloody riots and countless lost lives. I am further disgusted that my own country has a president that will not condemn Russia’s unjust activities. But I know that Ukraine will persevere because I know what is in the hearts of the young people of that country. They are proud and hopeful that things will turn around, and no corrupt politician will be able to hold off their dreams and aspirations forever.
Below are some pictures of the great trip that I took to Kharkiv, Ukraine as well as some from our 30 hour layover in Amsterdam on the way home (a vastly different experience!). If you’d like to learn more about the current situation in Ukraine, I highly encourage you to watch Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.