The Q&A Sessions: Where Is My Favorite Country?

One of the most frequent questions I get is what my favorite country is. I have been traveling almost nonstop for the last four years, so when people find that out, it is usually the first question I get. Whether it’s to pick my brain or compare their own experiences, who knows. I’ve always thought of it as a silly question so I’ve never given it much thought, but most of the time, I’ll spit out the first country that comes to mind. It is almost impossible to compare countries on a quantifiable basis, and it is definitely impossible to put to words the things that actually make you fall in love with a country. I often don’t remember the exact things that I do in a country but more often, the way I feel when I’m doing those things or reminiscing about doing those things.

Let’s rewind to a night I had back in Barcelona about a year ago. Barcelona is far from the most exotic or unique destination I’ve ever been to, and looking back at photos from this sunset, there is nothing particularly awe-inspiring about it. So when I talk about this night as one of my favorite memories, it just sounds like I went for a sunset hike in a tried-and-true travel destination and made some friends. Like I said, it is hard to put to words most of the best experiences we have, but I won’t soon forget how much fun I had in those few hours atop Carmel Bunkers. Hiking up with one friend and leaving with a dozen more after having a sunset jam sesh atop a hill overlooking Barcelona was everything that I loved about travel.

Everything just fell into place so perfectly. Of course, until I blacked out at the hostel during our acapella ukulele and harmonica jam session. In the midst of the blackout, one of the guys I met lost his phone but managed to somehow write down my email (??) before we split ways. The next morning, I got a message from someone I met years ago back in Central America, saying some guy asked if he could borrow his phone to email me. He recognized my name and we managed to link up and get the dude his phone back. That was a random tangent completely unrelated to the post but I felt that I had to share that ridiculous coincidence somewhere.

That week in Barcelona is one that I’ll not forget, but those types of moments are impossible to recreate. No matter how hard I try, I can’t write a guide on these kinds of things. Those feelings stem from experiences going far beyond the place itself.

A country is a place, technically speaking. But when you travel to a country, your experiences are much more than just a place. Not only is every country different, each adventure is also so dependent on so many different circumstances. Every time I go to a country, so many different factors play in to whether or not I love the country. My first time in Bolivia, I was a lost puppy struggling to adapt to a much meaner, grittier travel destination than where I just was in Peru. That was my second week ever of backpacking, to put things even further in perspective. Travel was supposed to be sexy, wasn’t it? Bolivia was far from it.

I returned to Bolivia three years later, battle-hardened from my adventures. Now, I cannot say enough good things about Bolivia, a country that I would have once shuddered at the thought of spending Christmas and New Year’s in. You had to practically drag me out of Bolivia by the time my visa had expired.

It is unfair to discard a country based on a few experiences with it. Given the limited time we have on this planet, it truly becomes impossible to rank countries and give them quantifiable scores at pretty much anything. I love mountains and I love hiking, so I’ll often say Peru or Argentina is my favorite country. But maybe when you ask me, the first thing I think about is people, in which case South Africa or the Philippines become the first country to pop into my mind. Mexico, Thailand, Indonesia, the U.S., and many more are right up there. Then I think about the places that won me over but I didn’t have the time to really get to know them. Places like Israel, Spain, or Brazil.

I am rambling, and that is okay because I have nothing better to do and neither do you. Welcome to quarantine blogging, baby.

But let’s cut to the chase. Where is my favorite country?

I thought I was going to have an answer to this by the time I got to this point. I was hoping that as I was rambling, that I would have a lightbulb flash in my head and there would be a quick and easy answer to the question. A eureka moment that screamed out, “Sri Lanka!” or “South Africa!”. After finally having some time to sit down and give it some thought…

The answer is nowhere. I don’t have a favorite country.

I have favorite memories. I have favorite feelings and favorite emotions. Favorite nights out, favorite sunrises and sunsets, favorite exhausted, dripping-sweat moments where the cheeky grin just cannot be wiped off no matter how hard you’d try. I have a lot of favorite things, yet it feels unfair to tie those memories to a specific place, if you kind of understand what I’m trying to say. A lot of us think of travel as the physical act of moving from one place to a different place. However, the best things you can gain from travel aren’t physical or tangible at all. The most important things we can draw from our experiences are spiritual, mental, or emotional. And while travel is a catalyst for some of those things, we don’t need to go halfway across the world to experience at all. Then on the other hand, I’ve met plenty of people in different countries who call themselves travelers, yet their mindsets are like they have not left home at all.

I was guilty of this, too. When I started with the persona of The Partying Traveler, I was studying abroad in Europe for the summer. I was hanging out mostly with other American students and our local adventures would typically be going to a pub and then a club. It was basically doing what we did in America but in a different country. There was little growth, or change, or really anything particularly valuable to draw from those experiences aside from some cringeworthy memories and peak-2016 Snapchats.

Some places, it feels like I’ve lived dozens of lifetimes in and others it feels like I’ve wasted completely. I lament my brief time in Brazil, which was spent entirely on the beach and in nightclubs with my American friends. I’ve since grown fond of the Brazilian culture just from the people I’ve met along the way who have given me a taste of it. I can’t truly say I’ve been to Brazil just based on the superficial experiences I had in the country.

So many factors go into what makes a country close to your heart. Most of all, your favorite country doesn’t depend on the country itself. It depends on you. You cannot expect to go into a country and have it pull out the red carpet to make sure you have the best time possible. Each country has something to offer if you visit with an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to immerse yourself into something new.

I’ve found that a change of attitude has led me to enjoying my time in every country that I’ve been to. I’ve long since stopped comparing destinations to one another and instead taking each day for what it is. Too often, I meet travelers who get too hung up on comparing destinations to one another. We will go somewhere and they’ll be vocally upset when it doesn’t live up to expectations.

It’s no Machu Picchu” or “I’ve been to better places.”

I mean, duh. Not everything you see or do is going to be life changing. If everything was life changing, then nothing is. The best thing you can do is take each day for what it is and make the most of it. I’ve been to plenty of places that don’t stick out in my mind. If there is nothing you can do about it, then complaining or sulking about it is only going to make things worse. Take as much joy in the bad days as the good days, in the lazy days as the adventurous days, and in the long bus rides and layovers as the once-in-a-lifetime excursions.

Travel has taught me to appreciate every moment, big or small, no matter where you are in the world.

And just because you (and I) were both hoping for something tangible to take out of this, here are some of my favorite memories, experiences, sunrises, sunsets, parties, and so on from all over the world. These moments stick out in my mind because I can still vividly remember how I felt, much more than I remember where I stood or what I saw.

Tearing up as the sun was rising after summiting Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. I passed many sweaty, smiling faces along the way. People of all religions, cultures, ages, and walks of life all encouraging one another as we trudged up 5,500 steps to see one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful sites at one of its most significant sites. After a few months where I was going through a dark time mentally, this was a big turning point in reminding me what I loved about travel and a much-needed affirmation that I was doing what makes me happy.

Racing atop Lion’s Head in Cape Town, South Africa when I saw the golden hour lighting working its magic in tandem with the clouds blanketing Table Mountain. I had a feeling it would be one of the best sunsets of my life, and despite warnings from my friend that those clouds might obscure our entire view by the time we got up there, we went for it anyway. An hour and a half later, we reached the summit and joined an electric group of people to admire one of the best sunset experiences I’ve had to this day.

The sound of those unashamed voices putting on a (mediocre) show at Carmel Bunkers at sunset, Barcelona, Spain. I still remember being proud that I knew all the words to Despacito, despite my voice making me cringe as I looked back on those Snapchat stories. I went up with a friend, then we met a few other people while watching the sunset before being attracted to the sound of a ukulele and a girl singing. We joined in unashamedly before bringing the whole crew back to the hostel for a jam sesh that was still one of the most fun nights I’ve ever had.

Pushing through the exhaustion to have dance parties atop the monstrous mountain passes of the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru. A combination of being the slowest hiker and frequent photo stops meant I was usually the last one to reach those treacherous mountain passes. Once I’d finally make it up there, the dance parties started and often wouldn’t stop until we were all the way down to base camp. Was it wise to exert even more physical energy at a time when we were already walking 20 kilometers a day at high altitudes? Nope. Do we regret it. Nope.

Watching the sun set on 2018 and rise in 2019 at a music festival in Drakensberg, South Africa. This was about two months after I decided to leave home for good, and with it, all of the safety nets that I had as well as a relationship that had taken up the entirety of my adult life. I was still kind of lost at this point of my journey, but this symbolic turning of the page was a big turning point. Camping alongside a group of 50 strangers where I knew exactly one of them beforehand was an amazing experience, and I had never felt more welcomed by a group of people as quickly as I did during those few days. The Smoking Dragon family is still one that I hold very, very close to my heart years later.

And these are just a few that came to mind right away. There are so many more that are hard for even me to describe, and I’ve lived those. The feeling of freedom, yet being at home in the blustery mountain village of El Chalten, Argentina. The moment I caught my first wave in Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa. The clearing of the clouds to reveal Machu Picchu after an exhausting four-day trek. Going straight from a rave to a trek without sleeping, passing out in a rainstorm at base camp and waking up at 2 AM with clear skies and a volcano erupting every few minutes in the background, Acatenango, Guatemala. Yeah, just because I’ve gone soft now doesn’t mean that I was never worthy of the title “The Partying Traveler”.

And let’s cap it off with a place that exemplifies exactly what I mean when I say that your favorite country depends on you and your attitude more than anything. After six weeks in Bali, I was starting to grow tired of the increasingly unavoidable over-commercialization of the island. It felt like a theme park for Instagrammers. Places like Canggu have become devoted entirely to being a sexy home base for influencers, surfers, and vacationers. I had committed to a six-week project that had quite frankly sucked the soul out of me, not because of the project itself but because the environment was so much different than what I was comfortable in. I had met many other “creators” and “influencers” and did my best to fit in to a lifestyle that wasn’t for me, and it led to a lot of unhealthy habits and a mindset that put me in a dark place.

I basically was counting the days towards the end and just trying to tell myself that I’d be flying out to live some fulfilling adventures soon. But why wait? With around a week left, I finally got out of a dark and unhealthy slump and decided to take the reins of my adventures once again. With my scooter and camera, I decided to just drive off into uncharted lands and experience the Bali that I knew was still hiding deep down under the sexy facade.

That was exactly what I was looking for, and exactly what I mean when I say that your mindset and attitude often defines your adventures, and not the other way around. Rainy days are still days, and wasting a happy moment because a country or a destination might not have lived up to your expectations is just a damn shame.

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