The more I travel, the more I perceive the world as vast, complex, intriguing, yet somehow closely woven . Over the past 11 years- since I began traveling- I’ve been to 22 countries and easily more than 250 cities. Some of these places were memorable, some gave me horror stories to tell for a lifetime, and others were simply pleasant to have visited. It is rare, however, that a city or town has given me that certain feeling of connection. It’s a spark similar to meeting someone you swear you’ve met before, or with whom you immediately click. These places, for one reason or another, stick with you long after you set foot on their soil. They surface in dreams, manifest in sporadic urges to return, and leave you reminiscing over your photos at midnight, with a sense of homesickness in your heart.
There are many locations that I’ve seen and never will again, and I’m okay with that. However, there are a few special cities that tug at me constantly, begging me to return. They are as follows:
1. Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo’s Asahi Flame, aka “The Golden Turd,” across the Sumida River
In 2006, I made a decision to start exploring the world outside of Latin America. I was absolutely obsessed. Every single country I’d been to at that time was Spanish-speaking, and in the Americas. I needed to force myself out of my comfort zone, and so a friend and I planned a trip to Japan, China, and India.
Eventually, India was dropped from the list and an altogether different friend decided to come along for the ride. I was living in San Francisco, CA at the time, and spent a few nights a week after work studying Japanese. After about four months of drawing my best Hiragana characters and my roommates tiring of hearing phrases like “So, desu ne,” I had a working, yet extremely elementary vocabulary.
Arriving in Tokyo was like doing a head stand and having my brain whirl around in my skull. This was a land of extremes. Extreme fashion, extreme politeness, extreme efficiency, and extremely large, brightly-lit buildings. Flash, flash, flash! Look HERE! No, look HERE! No, no, look THERE!!! This put Las Vegas to shame. It was the City of Sin on steroids to the infinite power. AND they had beer for sale in vending machines. I hardly blinked the whole time I was there. My mind was warped and my self-suspected Adult ADD was in full effect. This was so different from anything I’d ever experienced. Could this be real?
I need to return to Tokyo, first of all, because I was only there for about five days total. That is way too short of a time for such a fascinating, enigmatic city. Secondly, I was on a budget when I went. I want to go with at least two months and $10 grand to spend, because I know that Tokyo has much more to offer than what my measly wallet allowed me to experience. Thirdly, this was the first country I’d ever been to that gave me culture shock. To this day, I think my mind has never been blown as much as the day I first set foot in Japan- and that’s a lasting feeling. I want to go back, knowing what to expect, yet hoping for more. I want to take all of those amazing, intense experiences, and see how far Tokyo can push them.
2. Taipei, Taiwan
Listening to live salsa music at Brown Sugar in Taipei, Taiwan
Last year, in 2013, I had the unexpected opportunity to volunteer teaching English in Taiwan. At first, I admittedly wasn’t that excited about Taiwan, since I thought it would be a mini-version of China. (Don’t get me wrong; I loved the month I’d spent in China, but I wasn’t necessarily dying to go back.) I stood absolutely corrected. Taiwan was, well, a completely distinct country. The language was less cacophonous, the people friendlier, the food much healthier (this is one of the best places to travel as a vegetarian/vegan!), and a more peaceful feel overall.
I was assigned to teach in Chu-Pei, Taiwan, which is about an hour southwest of Taipei. I loved the place where I taught, even though it was more of a city-like, suburban location. I wasn’t able to visit the capital of the country until my teaching session was over, and due to filming a documentary in Borneo the following week, I only had two nights in Taipei.
The short time I had, however, stuck with me. The food was impeccable, the nightlife amazing, and the set-up of the city was organized and teeming with activity. Taipei was also uber-international- the two days I was there, I met people from England, Nicaragua, Colombia, Cambodia, and the U.S. It was a perfect conglomeration of everything a world traveler looks for in a city. I would love to return to Taipei, further explore the city, learn more of the Taiwanese dialect, and possibly even live there for a while.
3. Sao Paulo, Brazil
Graffiti Art by Ciro in Sao Paulo
Oh, Brazil, how I love and miss you! It’s not often that you arrive in a country and immediately mesh with the culture, the people, and the vibes. Brazil was this place for me. For my Master’s degree in Latin American Studies, I had to learn a second Latin American language, and I opted for Portuguese. After taking two semesters’ worth of classes, I was doing rather well. Still, I knew from experience that nothing compared to being immersed in a culture in order to obtain fluency.
The summer of 2008, I headed off to Belo Horizonte-where my Portuguese professor was from- to begin an intensive six-week Brazilian Language and Culture course in Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo. Coincidentally, the lady who was subletting my room in San Diego happened to be friends with a Paulista, and I met up with him the first day I arrived in Sao Paulo. He was the first Latin American vegetarian I’d ever met, and was also an artist who’d lived in Taiwan.
I was fortunate to get to know Sao Paulo from a local’s perspective- and one who shared many interests of mine. Perhaps this was the reason I fell in love with the city, but I suspect that there is much more. I’m a huge fan of large metropolises with thriving art scenes. It seemed that everyone I met there was a progressive individual, striving for more beyond themselves, focusing on positivity, and generating a ton of creative energy through poetry, art, acting, meditation, and so on. This is exactly the kind of environment that cultivates and stimulates me.
I feel a deep connection to Sao Paulo because I believe I was able to see into its artistic heart. Walking down the streets and avenues, in-your-face street art met my eyes on walls, doors, gates, and any other flat surfaces. This is the land of Os Gemeos, Binho, Ciro, and of Tikka! Art is everywhere; it seems to be in the air you breathe and the food you eat. Plus, their caipirinhas are damn tasty. A big piece of my heart was definitely left in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
4. Managua, Nicaragua
The Catedral de Santiago, in La Plaza de Revolucion, still stands in Mangua’s Old City Center, ridden with bullets
Managua is a stunning place of vast contradictions. Everywhere you turn, you see lush greenery, rolling mountains, and spectacular natural landscapes. The food is delicious, the music contagious, and the people incredibly warm and affectionate. Nonetheless, it is still the second poorest country in Latin America,and it shows. Countless homeless people have set up camp throughout the city, taking shelter under tarps and garbage bags. When I was there in 2007, the unemployment rate was 50%. It is a city still scarred visually and economically by years of civil war.
While volunteering in Nicaragua, I taught English, helped out at the library, and mostly did art projects with children at La Chureca- which was the city dump. My first impression was that it was a place of squander, drugs, disease, and sadness. Seeing children the age of four- malnourished, hands and faces dirty- chasing down trucks early in the am in order to find the best recyclables, instantly depressed me. They played in and drank from the same murky water where skeletal horses and pigs defecated. At the top of the hill, just beyond their make-shift homes of metal, wood, cardboard, and posters, you could see beyond to El Lago de Managua- a stunningly blue body of water bordered with forest green hills. It was taunting, this vision. To live in such squalor and be able to see a fairy tale of life, just across the way- it was at times too much for me to handle.
You can’t take experiences like this back. I will never unsee this kind of poverty, but still, something else was more even more overwhelming: It was the children’s sense of pure optimism. The faces that I saw on a daily basis in La Chureca were so happy and excited, so trusting and loving, that I looked forward to seeing them every morning. Nonetheless, every afternoon when I went home, my clothes were dirty and my shoes caked with mud. I was emotionally exhausted. I kept imagining these children as my own. I would give anything to provide just one child the opportunity to have resources like I’d had growing up.
Managua, Nicaragua was a city that shook me in many ways, and the country become one of my absolute favorites. It changed me. I had previously seen vast poverty throughout South America, but this was different. I got to know the names, faces, and stories behind these individuals’ lives. I do not exaggerate when I say that I owe part of who I am to my experiences in Managua. Partially because of that, I need to return. I want to see who these children have grown to be, to reunite with the friends I made there, and hopefully to glimpse a positive change in economy and distribution of resources.
5. Buenos Aires, Argentina
La Casa Rosada, the president’s house, during a protest in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Oh, Buenos Aires, the “Paris” of Latin America- how did I ever become entangled in your snare? My whole plan when finishing high school was to move to Spain and to become fluent in Spanish. Alas, that plan was abolished and instead, at my parents’ urging, I went straight to college. During the next four years, between Argentinean classmates in Spanish class, the Argentinean empanada stand at Venice Beach, and other little signs here and there, my mind shifted gears. In 2004, I purchased a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. Politically ill from Little Bush’s decisions and the wars that had just commenced, I wanted nothing to do with the U.S. I had no intention of coming back.
I may have looked like an argentina, but my obviously non-Argentinean accent soon gave me away. People tried to relate to me by referencing McDonald’s and Mickey Mouse. I suppose this was just as annoying as Argentinean people coming to the U.S. and people asking them if they worshipped Eva Peron, drank mate, or danced the tango.
Nonetheless, it was here that I relearned Spanish… errr… castellano, and started to become the person I am today. I met people from all over the Spanish-speaking world, overwhelming myself to the point where Spanish words floated around my head at night like incessant, pesky butterflies. I’m sure that I would have become fluent in Spanish no matter if I’d moved to Spain or Argentina, but I wouldn’t have been the same. It was here that I became interested in politics, had my first solo travel experience, and began to invest a huge portion of my life in Latin America.
I desperately want to return to Argentina not only to visit the friends I made that still live there, but also to retrace the steps that the early twenty-something version of myself made. I want to see how the city has changed, and how much I have changed as well. After having traveled to various other countries, and gaining ten years’ worth of life experience, I am sure to view the city from a whole different perspective. And, after all, Buenos Aires is where my obsession began; Argentina is embedded in my travel roots.
Are there any cities you’ve been to and long to return? Have you left your heart somewhere on the other side of the globe? I’d love to hear about them!