Scholars argue reflection is the most critical part of the learning process. I don’t have a bucket list. I have a hard enough time getting my daily to-do list done. And I don’t really think in terms of milestones, unless it’s a buy-10-get-one free coffee card. But recently I had the luxury of reflecting as I hiked around an ice cap in Greenland, which just so happened to be the 25th country* I’ve overnighted in since last September. Because one day I may suffer from dementia, like my grandparents, I made a list of the highs and lows (finally, I get to use red italics) of the countries who let me in. Obviously the countries who did not let me in did not make the list. Their loss.
- Strolling at dusk with juvenile lions, unleashed and mischievous, before ending the evening playing with more purring attention whores: cheetah cubs.
- Dining (or in my case, whining) at Carnivore, a bushmeat-themed restaurant outside of Johannesburg where men invade your personal space with swords piercing slabs of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, etc.
- Cycling on the one, hilly paved road in Northern Rwanda, while the children in the villages shouted, “Rafiki, Rafeeeeeeeki!” after my guide, Team Africa Rising’s most beloved rider.
- Crying myself to sleep at night in the hotel in Kigali. I was scared (watch Hotel Rwanda), alone, depressed (I went to the Genocide Museum straight from the airport) and exhaustipated (tired + constipated) after about two whirlwind weeks in South Africa.
- Feeding the wild animals in the streets of Old Town Rhodes and petting them until they purred. (Notice a recurring theme?)
- Drowning in my Dramamine-induced dreams while on a Turkish gullet that was no match for the stormy waves.
- Swimming (in search of Coke Zero) from the gullet to a tiny island in the Aegean Sea occupied by a Swedish man with royal connections, a pet baboon and several adopted orphans with special needs.
- Not following directions at the Turkish baths in Istanbul. (Do NOT lay directly on the hot stone slab. Lay on the threadbare towel they give you. Unless you want to be like me and have a nasty, bacterial burning rash for two weeks.)
- Reuniting with Sam, the Irish lad I fell in love with in 2009, and probably the only person in the world who could talk me into swimming in the Liffey which resulted in a few rounds of antibiotics, but I digress…
- Walking through The Clarence without seeing Bono. Or the Edge. Or even the band members with normal names.
- Whacking hundreds of balls at the driving range at Lough Erne. They have electronic tees that load the balls so you never have to bend over.
- In Belfast, I was too preoccupied with The Troubles to visit the Titanic, recently named the top tourist attraction in Europe.
- Photographing the old man, gambling at a gas station, who once delivered takeout to Jackie Kennedy in New York and chatting with the chef who told me he could cure my Crohn’s with gemstones.
- Getting hammered by the waves and spending a few days painfully picking embedded shreds of coral out of my tender palms.
- Paddleboarding to a private cove so I could scare the rest of my group (a diverse microcosm who made me question my stereotyping) as they returned from their boat tour.
- Leaving without the elusive bottle of Tequila Revolucion Anejo I tried so hard to find for David and Evelyn’s Cinco de Mayo party.
- Reuniting with Jose and staying with the most fascinating couple in the world: David and Evelyn of Discovery Beach House.
- Standing up the surfer I met in Guanacaste. I was too embarrassed of my lousy Espanol to meet up with him for a lesson and drink.
- Traveling with the likes of Mikey, Elyse, Greg, Finn, Matt Bell’s calves, etc. who made every once-in-a-lifetime experience a shared memory and put up with my memes.
- That’s easy: dramatically vomiting for three days. I even held up the plane on the tarmac in Bogota, probably causing a few innocent bystanders to miss their flights home for Thanksgiving.
- Hovering on the brink of exhaustion for days, thanks to my my guide, Iceland Air captain of 20 years, Sigrun. She lives each day as though it’s not only her last day, it’s her only day.
- Giving up after skiing one run at the ski resort. It was February. I was freezing. I like to feel my fingers too much I guess.
- Staying with the most gracious hosts in the world, the Sanz family, and spending my days sleeping and cycling around Casa de Campo
- Not being able to adjust to dinner at 10 p.m.; sleeping too much. I blame Sigrun.
- Meeting Mr. Vulgar Vinyasa in Chiang Mai, at my favorite park in the entire world. Anything goes at Nong Buack Head. Even cycling while eating ice cream and balancing a banana on your head.
- Getting a Thai massage on my LAST day. I should have gotten one EVERY day.
- Toss up between finding several menus featuring kale in Siem Reap and watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Honorable mention goes to the Phare Circus although it was quite the fire hazard.
- Reading The Killing Fields and learning about the Cambodian Genocide, especially from my guide, Sina, whose father was murdered by Pol Pot.
- Making a cameo in an Ethiopian pop star’s music video. The backup dancers (refugees from Eritrea) came out of the woods and were hauntingly beautiful, their background story making them even more so.
- Losing a sizable chunk of my benevolence as two young men looked me in the eyes and violated me. (Feeling like I was a quitter for flying to Paris that night instead of staying another week as originally planned.)
- Getting high on the energy emitted by hundreds of cyclists doing laps around the Longchamp Racecourse at Bois de Boulogne. Call me Francophile or do the French cycle with more finesse?
- Seeing the bases of the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre teeming with selfie stick vendors, a phenomena that wasn’t there on my previous trips to Paris. On the other hand, if it keeps kids off the streets…
- Waking up in Fresh Sheets (that’s the name of the place too) next to Old Town Dubrovnik’s cathedral. It’s like Architectural Digest and Food & Wine gave birth to a B&B.
- Realizing how much suffering is going on because of the conflict in Syria; the War Photography Museum in Dubrovnik had a Rated M for mature (and moving) two-story exhibit on the refugees’ plight.
- Hoofing it nine miles up to the top of the mountain overlooking the natural beauty and damaged goods of Mostar.
- The 6-hour bus ride on which I had to sit on top of the toilet because in Bosnia, there’s no such thing as max. occupancy and they oversell tickets.
- Hiking while playing my wooden flute so offensively that when I hit a high note, a nearby goat opted to jump off a mini cliff rather than risk me coming any closer.
- Spending only one night in Kotor. It’s the kind of place I want to escape to and enjoy for myself, secretly and selfishly.
- Photographing the view of the city and sea from the fort in Piran. Four months later and it’s still one of my best performing posts on Instagram. (Granted, it doesn’t take much.)
- Accepting the fact I didn’t have the stamina to cycle from hilltop town to hilltop town on a single speed bicycle.
- Having the morning (5 a.m.-ish) to myself (and the streetsweepers) in St. Mark’s Square. It’s the closest I’ll come to being the only tourist in Times Square.
- Not buying the pink Giro Italia jersey I tried on in the store at least three times.
- Being blown away by the sound and lighting effects on the brewery tour in Antwerp. I never had a sip of beer but I walked away with at least 10 solid selfies.
- Not realizing the McDonald’s in Brussels had a happy hour on day one. Seriously, it’s half price after 4 p.m.
- Completing the coasteering course. Zapped of every ounce of physical and mental energy but in a state of bliss knowing I never quit despite wanting to cry Uncle and swim to the Zodiac after that first electrifying jump.
- Can I say leaving? Leaving Portugal was like walking out of a movie in the middle of the most climactic scene. AND you have to leave your box of half-eaten Junior Mints behind. You paid $6 for those!
- POLAR BEARS
- Dentists without borders could do a lot of good up here.
- Camping on an ice cap where I met a woman from my hometown in Montana. Just a few days after I publicly declared I will never say, “It’s such a small world.”
- Trips to the communal buckets at ice camp. I’d take 10 minutes in the world’s most disgusting outhouse over 10 seconds in the potty tent any day.
- Coming home to my family, Jordan, Roger, Jonathan, Jonesy, Zeus and my neighbor Ryan – he’s the kind of neighbor Mr. Rogers wishes he could be.
- Dropping my dog off at my parents’ house and feeling like an absentee adopter. Seeing the “Again?” look in his eyes when he watches me pull of out their driveway. (I’m almost crying as I type this.)
*I know Puerto Rico is technically a U.S. territory, but for consistency’s sake (and a shorter title), let’s call it a country.