“Ordinary people with extraordinary stories”
On a recent pre-typhoon day, I took a 40-minute train ride from my home to the small Hakka village of Neiwan to have lunch with Faith, a fellow travel blogger. We had met a few months earlier (somewhere in the blogosphere) and she happened to be passing through my neighborhood, so we agreed to meet in “real life”. Faith, a 20-something American nomad, has been on the road for the past 16 months, experiencing the world along with her mother and her 20-something sister, Grace, who has Down Syndrome.
We wandered through the streets of Neiwan, quiet on this Monday afternoon, and headed to their favorite place where no Chinese language skills are required – ordering is done by pointing and gesturing. So we pointed and gestured and took a seat on our small stools for a long lunch.
The travel tales flowed over lunch and Faith generously agreed to answer a few probing questions to allow me a glimpse into their world…
So Faith, what (or who) inspired you to start traveling?
“My mom started sending me up to Canada for two weeks in the summers with my cousin and Nana when I was in middle school. It wasn’t a huge difference, but it was an introduction to a new culture. Then, after my freshman year of high school, a friend and her family were planning a six and a half week trip around South Africa, visiting their relatives there. They asked me to join them so, after pulling together the money from babysitting and pet sitting, I did! That trip made the world feel more accessible and exciting to explore.
“As for the nomadic lifestyle I’m now living, that’s fully due to my mom’s adventurous spirit. We were just going to relocate to a country in Latin America, but after coming back from her first experience backpacking in Panama, my mom asked me, “Why don’t we just backpack the world instead of settling down?” I thought about it for a couple seconds, then said, “Ok, sure.“”
That sounds nothing like my Mom! So, once you hit the road with Mom and Grace, what was your biggest culture shock moment?
“Each place has its own quirks, but my mom and I agree that before traveling we never realized how the treatment of animals speaks volumes about a culture. The biggest culture shock for both of us has been witnessing animal abuse in Muslim cultures.
“A country like Turkey is dominated by Islam in religion, yet heavily influenced by European in culture. We loved Turkey and didn’t witness animal abuse there. Yet in countries where Islam is deep and ruling in every facet of life, dogs, cats, donkeys, camels, and horses were brutally abused right before us.
“In Jordan, Morocco, Indonesia, and Nazareth, a Muslim town in Israel, rocks were thrown at dogs, hot water sprayed at kittens, ropes around the necks of donkeys pulled so tightly that they were bleeding, horses harshly whipped, etc. Coming from a country where dogs and cats are pets, it was strange for us to travel these places where that mindset doesn’t exist.”
I felt the same shock in Vietnam where it’s acceptable to eat dogs. Kind of disturbing!
Traveling with a disabled sister must be incredibly challenging as well as rewarding. How have people you’ve met responded to Grace?
“In general, Grace gets a lot of stares. Sometimes I have to laugh as peoples’ heads seem to twirl all the way around to gawk as she walks by. I remember in Paris there was a young Parisian cat-calling every woman who walked by. We were walking in his direction so I dreaded the moment that we would reach him. Before we did, I put Grace in front of me. When the man caught sight of her, his face turned quizzical, and his mouth seemed ready to drop open. The Parisian went quiet and watched her, confused, until Grace was out of sight. Mostly I think people don’t know what to make of her.
“In Turkey she was a queen. Men opened doors for her, helped her on and off buses, women came over to give her a kiss on the cheek or clean off her shirt when she was eating, and bus fares and entrance fees were always half price or free. Grace received a free meal from one man and a lollipop from another in Petra, Jordan.
“In hostels, we have met tons of wonderful souls who were happy to say hello and interact with my sister. Most notable were the believers we befriended in Jerusalem and in Eilat, Israel. Our friend Keith in Israel spent the mornings drawing and doing activities with Grace. We saw an improvement in her from his investment of time and attention. There have been people who offered her coloring books, put their music on for her, or helped her up and down stairs. We also traveled for a month with three Spanish women we met on the road. They were nothing but kind, patient, and thoughtful towards Grace at every moment.”
Have you learned any valuable lessons from traveling with Grace?
“Grace has taught me the value of taking it slow. My first instinct when arriving in a new place is to climb all the mountains and see every sight, but Grace can’t do that. It can be rewarding to see every attraction on offer, check them all off and have earned the right to say, “been there, done that.”
“But sometimes just chasing check marks for a bucket list leaves things a little empty. A lot of the most unique, richest moments traveling came from soaking in the way people live, just by walking around an area slowly. I wrote a post on this called “Travel With a Special Needs Sister“. I concluded by writing that Grace has taught me, most of all, how to be a human being, rather than a human doing.”
I totally agree with the idea of sitting at a cafe’, soaking up the culture. That’s my favorite thing to do in a new city. So, how has your nomadic lifestyle changed you?
“I wonder about this myself. The adjustments to this new lifestyle and new places in the last 16 months have been challenging and gradual. The biggest take away from 16 months of travel has been education. I’ve become more interested in the world after seeing things up close and in person. My faith has been more firmly grounded after studying the histories and religions of each country we visit.
“Travel has made me curious. In a classroom, or reading from a textbook, nothing really stuck with me like it does while living it out. I’ve become interested in geology after many hikes through foreign terrains, interested in agriculture and ancient traditions while watching a rice harvest in Bali.
“This journey has taught me how naive I am and how endless knowledge is, but also that knowledge is not as important as love and connection with people. At home in the US, I lived a pretty autonomous lifestyle. I worked and went to school, made and carried out my own schedule. Now I am with my mom and sister much more. In an effort to jointly care for Grace, my mom and I have had to learn how to compromise and communicate, and all those essential things that go into making a relationship work.
“I’ve learned a lot about my own strengths, but mostly weaknesses, and how to take responsibility for them. (I’m sure I’ll be forever working on that one.) As a naturally very shy and timid person, I think I’ve grown to be more confident as well. Traveling around forces you to put yourself out there.”
And what about Grace? How has this amazing experience changed her?
“I’m planning on doing an in-depth post on what travel has done for Grace. Keep on the look out for it! Ultimately it has gotten her to live again, and that was the goal. While the doctors told us the only option for her was a nursing home, and as every door closed, there wasn’t much left to do if we stayed in the US. At 25, she already deals with dementia and Alzheimer’s and was going at times catatonic. We needed an environment to stimulate her mind, get her out exercising and interacting with others.
“Backpacking has fulfilled these needs beautifully. She has lost close to 40 pounds just by walking around, carrying her own backpack and eating at set times. She encounters scores of new people each day, deals with new environments, hears a ridiculous amount of foreign languages, and has opportunities to figure things out and get her brain working.
“A great plus has been her strange love for public transportation. Every time we are on a bus or a train, she just lights up. Don’t ask me why! Her life is much improved on the road, although it is still very difficult. She has ups and downs, but without a doubt, for her case, travel was the best, and a necessary, decision.”
After 16 months on the road, I’m sure you’ve got tons of stories. Do you have one favorite travel memory?
“Must I pick only one? I’m much too indecisive!”
OK, I understand! How about just your favorite travel memories?
“My favorites include sharing a Shabbat meal at a rabbi’s house with 100 people in Jerusalem, learning Arabic over a falafel sandwich from two Arabic men in the most densely Arabic populated town in Israel, picking cherries out of a sweet, non-English speaking Arabic couple’s field in the Golan, camping on the Sea of Galilee, eating lemon gelato in Lake Como, Italy, tearing down a satanic altar on the top of a mountain, hiking to the top of Mount Masada to see the sun rise and explore the ruins, having fighter jets on their way to Gaza shoot only a few meters over our heads while in the Ein Gedi desert, learning how to scuba dive, listening to meaningful Christian Christmas carols sung in three languages by Indians and Singaporeans in Singapore, taking in the incredible structures in the rock in Petra, sharing wine, junk food, and stories with a group of French girls in a hostel in Barcelona, taking a ride on a bamboo train with three Spanish friends in Cambodia, getting picked up off the side of the road in a rain storm by strangers and treated to their 5 star hotel staff team building dinner in Taiwan, meeting local Christians in a hospital in Jakarta, Indonesia, and, oops, the list is getting a little long!
Wow! What amazing memories! The stories behind these memories are just begging to be turned into a book…or maybe even a movie?
A few hours of stimulating conversation later, our bowls were empty and we retraced our path back to their hotel. As we were saying our goodbyes on the small street in Neiwan, I gave Grace a hug – and she hugged me back with a huge smile lighting up her face. Though usually non-verbal, Grace mumbled to her Mother “I hugged her!”
I smiled as I hurried up the street to catch my train.