7 Places I've Been That I Couldn't Have Imagined Traveling to a Decade Ago

Taking a breather in Wadi Rum, a desert in Jordan (Photo: Alexa Smith)

Taking a breather in Wadi Rum, a desert in Jordan (Photo: Alexa Smith)

If I were to begin a post like this with a clichéd phrase, my weapon of choice would be "life can be surprising sometimes." Of course, I would never subject you to a clichéd phrase such as that, no matter how true it might be.

But I could say, more specifically and less cliché-y, that I have experienced a number of twists and turns during my 24 years on this earth so far, and many of those twists and turns have been pleasantly unanticipated. Many of them have also involved me traveling to destinations far and wide that I truly could not have imagined myself journeying to a decade ago — heck, even five years ago in some cases.

For many years, those more standard-type destinations have been on my bucket list, and here we're talking about your (western) European extravaganzas and your Australian outbacks and your Hawaiian white-sand beaches. While literally none of those trips have happened yet — unless you count my layovers in Frankfurt, Germany, and Zürich, Switzerland (which I don't) — there are a number of other places I've been to just in the last four years that I simply never saw myself traveling to.

And, without exception, journeying to each of those places has been nothing short of amazing. So here, for your entertainment, are brief snippets about each:

1. The Great Wall of China

It's something you learn about in middle school social studies, one of humankind's greatest feats throughout all of history, but, if you're me, you never imagine that you'll find yourself physically standing atop the Great Wall of China by the time you're 21 years old. I still remember, when we visited a section of the wall at Mutianyu in May 2015, how it took several moments, and many steps, for the knowledge that I was actually standing on top of the 13,000-mile long structure that appears in the opening scene of Mulan to sink in.

I mean, wouldn't that have been something for the reanimated corpse of Shan Yu, back from being blown to smithereens in an animated 1998 film, to show up? Alas, it was not to be. We certainly got our steps in for the afternoon, though.

When you're just wild and reckless on your visit to the Great Wall (Photo: Angie Rouston)

When you're just wild and reckless on your visit to the Great Wall (Photo: Angie Rouston)

2. Uruguay

What do Azerbaijan, Estonia, and Uruguay all have in common? Well, they're all countries I probably never would have thought about traveling to. Only, four years ago in the midst of a study abroad trip to Argentina, the other students and I were treated to a weekend excursion to Colonia del Sacramento, a fairly-old city in southwestern Uruguay that sits on the other side of the Rio de La Plata from Buenos Aires.

Prior to my jaunt to that small pocket of the country, Uruguay was just one of those South American nations that we had to know the capital of in Spanish class (it's Montevideo, by the way). After spending a couple days in Colonia del Sacramento, though, I'd happily return to do some more exploring in other regions of the country. Fun fact: the Uruguayans beat everyone else to legalizing recreational marijuana nationwide, in case that kind of thing interests you.

3. The Dead Sea

What you've heard is true: you will float in the Dead Sea without even trying. You will also feel super salty (and I don't mean butt-hurt) after you get out, which is why they have a bunch of shower stations right along the beach — at least the beach that we went to anyway.

Before visiting the Dead Sea, the place might as well have existed in a fictional tale, so far as I was concerned. But things got real when our bus traveled into the West Bank region of Israel and we stopped at Kalia Beach, home to the Lowest Bar in the World, at the northern end of that salty, salty sea. I didn't have a newspaper to pose with, as I hear is common, but we definitely got some candids in.

4. The Western Wall

Sticking with Biblical destinations for a minute here, how about the Western Wall? You know the one — the last wall standing from the Second Jewish Temple built in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago; the wall held in holiest regard by all three of the most well-known Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism); the wall that's full of handwritten prayers from its many, many visitors. 

It is, again, a place I recall learning about in school that sounded so fairytale-like that I never really thought of myself actually going out into the world and seeing it for myself. That goes for Jerusalem itself and all the areas of Israel I was able to travel to a couple years ago, really. The sheer number of holy sites we visited during that trip is pretty impressive when I sit here and think about it, but the Western Wall sticks out somehow. Maybe I have a thing for great walls?

If you can get past the fact that this photo is a flawed attempt at a panoramic, you might notice Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, Petra's most famous façade

If you can get past the fact that this photo is a flawed attempt at a panoramic, you might notice Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, Petra's most famous façade

5. Iguazú Falls

Let's switch our attention now from walls to falls — those of the largest waterfalls system in the world, that is. The main reason Iguazú Falls was never on my travel bucket list is because I had never heard of them before visiting Argentina in 2014. It's quite difficult to yearn to travel to some destination when you are unaware said destination exists, as you can well imagine.

When a group of us did head up from Buenos Aires, where we were studying Spanish, to Puerto Iguazú and las cataratas, things got just a little bit wet (and I promise that is not a sexual innuendo; remove your mind from the gutter, thank you very much). That's because, on top of all the water contained in the falls, it just so happened to rain all day long while we visited Iguazú National Park. I'd say the sights I'd never thought of seeing were well worth laying eyes on, however.

6. Petra

Nestled in southwest Jordan, Petra is your standard ancient city built into the sides of mountains that once served as the capital of a long-gone group of nomadic Arabs. Yeah, okay, there's nothing too standard about that. This place is actually amazing, though. I first heard/saw photos of it on the "Visit Jordan" Instagram feed — though how I ended up finding that account I cannot say.

That was maybe in 2014 or 2015, and never did I imagine that I would end up exploring the former home of the Nabataeans only a year or two later on a trip to Israel and Jordan (which is heavily documented on this blog). The Middle East, generally, is just not somewhere I saw myself going — not until I stumbled upon the study abroad opportunity that would take me there and I was hard-pressed to find a reason not to apply.

7. Six Miles from the Syrian Border

So, there's kind of been this civil war going on in Syria for the better part of the current decade, in case you weren't aware, and traveling there right now is probably not encouraged, to say the least. Joking aside, when our group visited the Mount of Beatitudes just outside of Capernaum in Israel a couple years ago, our professor happened to share that we were mere miles from the border with Syria, thus as close to the literal waging of warfare that any of us had probably ever been.

Before taking that trip to the Middle East, which I have now referenced four times in this list (evidence of just how much I surprised myself in traveling there, perhaps), I knew next to nothing about the region and its conflicts. You may not either, but there are plenty of ways to learn and lend a hand to the Syrian refugee crisis, such as donating through UNICEF.



P.S. You may have noticed I mentioned studying abroad a couple of times up above. Study abroad through the University of Michigan is the reason I was able to reach each of the destinations discussed in this post, and if you're a college student at this moment in time, I'd highly suggest looking into your school's international opportunities. I promise, just like that dude from We're the Millers, you'll have "no ragrets."