Wise Words From a Traveler: by Ashley Dittmar

Traveling is food for your soul.  Stop making excuses, and start living, because once you have traveled, then you begin to realize what life truly is about.

People travel mainly to relax, sightsee, and enjoy themselves. I traveled originally for those reasons too, but soon began to realize what travel was really about for me personally, and that was to find myself, as well as to meet the wonderful people that make up this crazy, beautiful world.

                 In the first 15 years of my life I traveled within the US, and to Caribbean islands with my family.  Once my parents divorced that routine changed.  I had to gain travel experiences through opportunities and hard work. After 15, through the rest of high school, I traveled to Europe and Kenya with family, to Japan with a friend whose family was transferred there temporarily for work, and to Central America twice with a local non-profit group. All of these experiences were wonderful, enlightening and unique, but nothing compared to my final high school trip to Ecuador.

Ecuador has become my second home, for many reasons, but mainly for a small organization that provides the basic living necessities for young street children. The boys may come and go as they please, but this organization is not just a roof and a warm meal, it is a home filled with love and opportunity. Each boy pursues an education as well as having medical services to help with addictions from drugs and emotional and physical abuse they experienced previously in their homes.  Most of these boys were living on the street at the mere age of 5. Through each of their stories, and being engulfed by young damaged souls whom surprisingly only sought love and affection regardless of their past failures and heartaches, did I realize what travel is about. Witnessing children shelter me with love, when all they have received is pain was truly inspiring to me. During this trip, I helped to build classrooms for these boys, and brick by brick, with their helping little hands; I came to realize many things but most importantly I realized that traveling is more than sightseeing.

There is a moment when you travel when you know that it is more than a vacation. Everyone has their moment at different times, in different circumstances, but in that particular moment was my affirmation that traveling is to meet others completely different than myself, whom inspire me to be a better person.

I confirmed this travel moment once I trekked to Kenya a mere 3 months later to go on Safari’s with my family, which I am completely grateful for the experience, but also felt incomplete being in Africa not working within a community. This feeling did not dissipate until five years later when I returned to Africa to live and work for a cause.

After these experiences I went to college, 3,000 miles away from my home, with an undeclared major but a very declared vision. After only a semester I realized I wanted to study International Business with the emphasis in the Spanish language and Latin American regions, as well as Social Work. With this pair, I was educated on political, economical and cultural understandings in this region.

This program led me to my most memorable travel experience, in my life thus far. I decided to return to Ecuador to study abroad. My classes were only two and a half months, which left me with the other three months prior to my program to travel. Never being away from the US traveling for longer than 12 days, five and a half months was slightly daunting. However, with many closures happening in my life at the same time, I packed one VERY large backpack and headed off, easily leaving the past in the US completely behind me, and one open mind to soak up every experience that lay before me.

 I left that summer and drove through 11 countries in Latin America. I traveled to the peaks of the Andes to the beaches of Rio. I was in snow one day and the sun the next. I learned how to make local cuisine, dance, speak another language, I went zip lining, sand boarding in the desert, climbed through mines miles underground, hiked up to Machu Picchu, volcanoes, glaciers and any other large ass mountain you can think of. I traveled in busses, planes, cars, chicken busses, bikes, boats, motorcycles, vans, and I walked a lot. I slept in hotels, hostels, tents, trucks, salt hotels, and busses. Trust me the bag never got lighter, I just kept getting stronger.

I met friends who I consider some of my best friends to this day, who live on five continents other than my own. MAKE FRIENDS ABROAD. Not only will you always have a travel buddy for the future, but also you now have personal tour guides and free couches all over the world. Plus its always nice to know if you ever need help, you have friends at all latitudes and longitudes that will be there to support you.

Upon my return almost six months later, I caught the bug and decided to travel again the entire summer. I returned to Africa and lived in Ghana where I worked to start a small business to financially support a local school for special needs children. I continued my journey to Northern Africa and all of West and East Europe finalizing my year abroad. I ended my 13-month travel journey ironically with three friends I met the first week in Central America (make friends abroad!).                      That year I traveled to 23 countries, on 3 continents. I lived in Ecuador for three months, then the US for four months between my two adventures, and one in Ghana, still giving me a little less than 6 months to travel to the other 21 countries within Central and South America, Africa and Europe.                              I know I can’t advise you on many things in life, because mainly I’m trying to figure them out myself, but the one thing I can assure you on whole heartedly, is to travel. In fact, I beg you to travel when you’re young. Borrow money if you need to, but the earlier you travel the better your view of the rest of your life will be. When you’re surrounded by friends and family, in a comfortable environment, and then leave to start off fresh, you realize who you truly are, without reservations of judgment, or influences of others. You are truly YOU. This is a remarkable feeling to have after years of being who you thought you are.  Soon you’ll meet new people, and fall back into your social self, but for that brief moment, when its only you, yourself, and an uncomfortable environment, you get a rare chance to see who you really are without any external influences.

The greatest part about traveling isn’t the temples, or the monuments, not even the waterfalls, or lions, or food. The best part about traveling is stripping away your comforts, feeling completely lost and vulnerable, and having people accept you as you. Even if they don’t look similar you, or speak the same language, or wear the same clothing, it’s the people and the connections you make with them that will forever impact your soul.

So

go find yourself

be yourself,

feed your soul,

change your life.

-Ash

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