I began this blog in 2009 because I was unsure about a lot of things in my life but I knew two things: 1) I needed a change, and 2) I needed to write about it. Writing helped me process my thoughts and capture whatever moment I was in, even if that moment was foggy and hard to see through. As I began writing, I learned that other people were coming in and out of similarly foggy places, and that it was comforting for them to hear about someone else processing their journey.
At the time, it was also becoming clearer to me that what I wanted in life wasn’t going to just fall into my lap. First, I’d have to figure out what exactly that was (easier said than done). Then, I’d have to really fight for it, crawl on my hands and knees to get it and cling to it even if it was being wildly shaken from my hands. One constant was that I wanted to write, and in 2009 I decided that I wasn’t going to wait around for someone to tell me if and when I could.
When I started TwT, I had no idea that I’d get a dream job to move to Ecuador and work as a travel writer, which would turn into an awakening of some sorts when I realized it wasn’t what I wanted anymore. I had no idea that I would eventually change careers completely and work my butt off to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy. But through it all, I kept writing. Even if it was just for me.
Thanks to that decision to capture my journey in words, images and conversations along the way, I have a collection of blog posts to look back on and continue to learn from. As a tribute to my TwT days, and a nod to where it has all taken me, I have decided to repost some of my favorite and most significant blog posts below.
If you feel compelled to read about one person’s indirect path to a career, or if you just need a little comfort because you’re unsure about what’s next for you, then here are some of my favorite posts from that time I was there too (and wrote all about it).
Happy New Year, and please remember to be true to you and the life you want to lead this year — no matter what.
As I followed the purple gowns and kilted bagpipe players into NYU’s Skirball Center, I realized that one of the biggest challenges of my life was about to come to an end right where it all began.
Five years ago, after deciding to embark on this somewhat crazy and perhaps overly ambitious (and, yes, maybe impractical) decision to transition from travel writer to doctor of physical therapy, I walked into the same theater that I was about to get hooded in to begin my first science class as a 27-year-old post-baccalaureate pre-med student. A few months earlier, I had quit a “dream job” working as a travel writer and editor in Ecuador to return to NYC and pursue a career I had been quietly pondering for 7 years. For the first time since graduating college, I felt like I really knew what I wanted. But when I walked through those doors as an eager and excited travel writer, I never could have imagined what it would take to walk back out as a doctor.
This has, without a doubt, been the most challenging, most humbling, most intense, most difficult, most consuming, most frustrating, most exhausting, and most disorienting experience of my life – and that is coming from someone who has traveled alone to many parts of the world before iPhones even existed. I want, with all my verbal might, to capture this feeling, this moment, this sense of accomplishment in words, but I am not sure the words will do all the feelings justice.
To try and explain what I have learned – about the human body, about determination and grit, about life, about love, about the world around me, about people, about myself – would take up a book (oooh, and I’m working on one of those, so stay tuned!). Instead, I will just quickly summarize this journey. All I want is for it to be a reminder to anyone that is reading – maybe you’re younger than me, maybe you’re older than me – that no matter what challenge you are considering, you can climb that mountain. You can run that race. You can make that dream job happen. It might take sacrifice to levels you never imagined and it might mean giving up money and a chance to enjoy the other things you love, but if you are willing to laser focus on one goal, you can get there.
In many ways, I feel like I missed out on so much these past 5.5 years. I missed weddings, I missed baby showers, I missed birthdays, I missed old friends visiting for only 24 hrs, I missed art, I missed movies, I missed sporting events, I missed workouts at 6:30am with The Rise NYC (shoutout!). Going back to school affected relationships, it affected my self-identity, it put a major kink in the life I thought I would have in my 30s. After years of soul searching around the world as a 20-something, I thought I had finally arrived in the life that would stick. Then, once again, part of my plan crumbled and I had to stay focused on school while the ground I thought I was standing on fell out from underneath me – just when I thought that would never happen again. I missed gatherings of loved ones and opportunities to share important life events with people I care about in every way all the time. Every time I couldn’t come to a celebration or see a friend or be part of a person I care about’s important life event, a tiny chip was made in my heart. But in that same heart, I knew this was right. Arriving at that “knowing” took years, and I had to streamline my world to make it here. Thank you all for understanding.
I gave up one of the freest and most adventurous jobs a person can have and imprisoned myself, as it often felt, in a room with pages and pages of information I needed to somehow shove into my brain, no matter how bright the sun was shining outside and how tempting the desire to just run away, save thousands of dollars, and be free again might feel. I, like many of my classmates, gave up years of income (and fun!) to invest in a degree that would allow us all to become experts in human anatomy and movement. As doctors of physical therapy, we are dedicated to a life of easing other people’s pain, and helping people become stronger versions of themselves. There is so much more to say about what can be accomplished with this degree, but I’ll save that for another post.
A couple weeks ago, I ran my first ever half marathon. For me, this race was symbolic and significant in many ways that most people may never know. I became interested in becoming a physical therapist during my senior spring at Bowdoin College, when I injured my back after slipping on frost while carrying a rowing shell overhead. I ended up in PT instead of racing my last season as a member of the Bowdoin crew team, and found myself learning more about a healthcare field I always wanted to be a part of but never realized existed. Several years later, after dislocating my knee rushing up a slippery staircase in flip-flops (also after a row), I once again ended up in PT. Despite my awesome physical therapist, I couldn’t run without knee pain for 3 years. I loved running, and I would dream about it. A doctor told me to “find another sport.” I found another doctor.
Since that injury, I went from being able to run 10 minutes continuously to 4 miles comfortably, and fast. At the beginning of this year, I began to push my running boundaries and play around with the physical limits I thought I had. Armed with a new knowledge and understanding of the body and how to fine-tune it, I decided to sign up for the Brooklyn Half Marathon, and do whatever it took to cross that finish line. I went from never running more than 4 miles in October, to gradually pushing myself (with only 1 run weekly) to 11 miles. Like so many things I’ve experienced these past 5 years, I expected the race to be a challenge the whole way. I expected it to be painful and grueling and a struggle until the end. But, shockingly, it wasn’t.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around how comfortable I felt most of the race, because feeling comfortable is a luxury I have not had these past 5 years. And it is a feeling I did not expect during a half marathon. But just before the Coney Island boardwalk, I pushed for a final sprint. A lot of thoughts and emotions were going through me – memories, pride, relief. Just when I realized I may have begun my sprint too soon and I began to feel like all my energy and strength had been completely depleted, I heard a voice from the crowd scream: “TAVEL!!!!” Just when I was feeling lost and isolated in my pain, I saw my college friend yelling and waving to me. And then, after we somehow made eye contact, she said: “TAVEL – KEEP GOING. GO AND GET YOUR MEDAL!”
I don’t know where she came from, and how she knew that I would need her right then and there, but those words overwhelmed me. My eyes actually filled with tears of gratitude at that point. After running alone for so long, I was reminded that I was not alone at all.
I dug deep, and sprinted to the finish line. Not once during the entire race had I thought about the medal until then. Suddenly, it meant everything to me. When I crossed that finish line in Coney Island, I completed the longest run of my life. The timing coincided beautifully with the week I earned my doctorate. When I was finally allowed to stop running (after 1 hour and 49 minutes), a stranger put a medal around my neck.
I was alone, exhausted, and surrounded by people each with their own medal symbolizing their own journey to that finish line. That race from Prospect Park to Coney Island, those 13 miles, that medal will always have a special place in my heart. It was an end of a long run, but it also marks the beginning of many more, I hope.
Despite everything that went into this process – the blood, the sweat, and oh yes, lots of freakin’ tears – there is nothing sweeter in life than achieving a goal you set out to accomplish. I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a lot of beautiful places. And in all this traveling, I have learned that the highest mountains have the most beautiful views. The most painful races, have the most gratifying finish lines. The biggest sacrifices have the sweetest rewards.
This may be just one mountain in a large mountain range, but right now, way up here, everything looks beautiful. Thank you for climbing it with me.
It’s been over a year since I last wrote. The break was deliberate — a deliberate separation of my travel writer “self” and my evolving physical therapist “self.” These two “selves” have been in transition over the last 3.5 years, with the travel writer adventurer fading into the background as the diligent and determined grad school student cautiously crept out to take center stage. Now I’ve officially arrived at the midpoint of my grad school journey, so it’s time to high-five my classmates, and take a look around. For the first time, I’m more physical therapistthan travel writer; I’m more in this new career than out.
Getting to halfway has been a long process. A LONG, challenging process in so many more ways than I ever could have imagined. (Did I mention it has felt long?) Somehow, it’s also been a whirlwind. Every time a semester ends, people ask me if I’m done yet. They say, “Did you just graduate?” or “This is your last year, right?” Ah, how I wish I could say yes. But the answer has been a steady and repetitive “No…” followed by a semi-desperate but optimistic “…not yet!” I’m so used to not being done (yet) that actually arriving at halfway feels like a major accomplishment. Halfway means the amount of time left can’t be more than the amount of time I’ve already put in (yay math!).
That said, I feel like I’ve been stuck in a perpetual state of having 3 years left of school. It’s never been “almost done.” And now that I’m taking a second to stop and look at how far I’ve come it’s hitting me that I’ve really learned a lot, to put it simply. It’s like a growth spurt; you can’t see the inches adding up while you steadily grow, but when you compare how tall you are to how tall you were the year before, the difference is amazing. (If you’re short, you’ll just have to trust me on that one, sorry!)
In many ways, my 30s began with many not yets. I once was a naive 21-year-old who truly believed that I just had to make it through my 20s to get to all the answers. I have since learned that the questions just change the whole time. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of life being a lot of finish lines, but what happens when you realize that you’ve signed up for one of those ultra-marathons, which consists of six back-to-back marathons over the course of a week in the hottest desert in the world? (Ok, I just watched a documentary called “Desert Runners,” and, strangely, those 250K race experiences in 119 degree weather reminded me very much of my career-changing experience.) I feel like I’m in my own academic ultra-marathon, putting all my faith in a finish line that I know is there and yet I can never quite see. But being halfway means that I can get there. It reminds me I’m truly on my way.
It seems fitting to celebrate the halfway point with a trip. On Saturday, I will be going to Trinidad for an opportunity to experience physical therapy in an international setting. You may remember me once saying that my TwT days weren’t over, and that I planned to eventually combine my excitement for the field of physical therapy with my passions for travel and writing. Well, guess what? That little dream is becoming a reality. While I often feel like my life takes a hard right turn just when I get settled thinking I’m going to go left, this opportunity reminds me that past hopes and dreams need not be forgotten. That travel writer “self” may have given up center stage, but she is just watching the show from the wings. The traveler — the adventurer — is still here, in me, and she is always welcome to come along for another ride.
For the last few years, I’ve felt like I’ve had to stand still when all I’ve wanted to do is run. Going to Trinidad reminds me that all this time I’ve been still, waiting patiently, and working so hard without feeling like I’ve moved enough, I’ve actually gotten somewhere. Eventually all the inches add up, and the slow and steady steps lead you where you’ve always wanted to go. Sometimes I need to remind myself to forget about the finish line, look around, and realize it’s pretty great where I am now.
For a long time I’ve wondered when, if and how I would write this post. Would the TwT days be limited to the soul-searching travel adventures of my 20s? Or would TwT continue along with me through the next decade — a (presumably) slightly more responsible chapter with less movement, different questions, and more studying? And what about beyond all that? As I’ve said from day 1, this “travel” blog isn’t just about global trips: it’s about the trip you are on with yourself as you make decisions about life all along the way. Yes, it has technically been “my” trip, but I know from the comments I’ve received that this is a trip we are all on (although the scenery, the vehicle, the snacks and the daydreams are slightly different — and I probably have more snacks than anyone). While blogging about the various decisions I’ve had to and chosen to make over the last several years, I’ve learned that sometimes the most exotic option is staying still and committing to something. The great unknown can be found in every step forward, even those footsteps that don’t go very far. But now I’ve begun to ask myself a question: do I keep writing about it all, or do I just walk away?
November Woods. Storm King Art Center. NY.
You may or may not have noticed that TwT has gone quiet lately. In fact, this is the longest I’ve gone without writing a new post in the over-four-year history of TwT! This timidness is an inevitable consequence of my new life as a grad student (who has time?!), and of course, my new goals. Before I continue, let me just say that this is not a final “goodbye” or “the end” of TwT […she types as she pretends to hear many e-sighs of relief…] I’d like to think that TwT is here to stay, even as it changes form and grows like a vine around my little world, spreading up and out in unpredictable directions yet always staying connected to where it all began.
Reflection. Goldsworthy. Storm King Art Center. NY.
But let’s be honest: grad school has taken over my life (and it’s not that sexy to read about). There is less and less actual “travel” in Travels with Tavel (sniff, sniff) and much of what I’d want to write about is off-limits (darn!). As my transition from travel writer and editor to physical therapist continues, I’ve decided to start shrinking my online presence. There is so much to say when it comes to what this transition feels like, what I am learning, and what I hope to experience as a student and, eventually, as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, but I guess we’ll just have to have actual conversations about all that now (can you imagine?!).
Storm King Art Center. NY.
As I meet more and more people in this new identity as a DPT student, I find myself still wanting to tell them about a whole different life I had before all this. Most of the people who I meet now don’t know much about the girl who spent a month volunteering in Costa Rica, a month traveling alone around Mexico, and months fighting a parasite in Ecuador (among other exotic and dangerous adventures, although Juan the Amoeba certainly left his mark). Most don’t know what led to this person, to this blog, and what led to giving all of that up. (And who’s to say anyone cares?!) That said, the time has come to put TwT aside for a little bit. I’m still Travels with Tavel. I always will be! But I’ve decided to keep more of the journey to myself, now.
But wait! Don’t go! Here is what I have decided:
I am not done writing TwT (or writing, in general, if I have any say in the matter). While you can expect fewer future posts, at least for the time being, I want to celebrate the past ones. I think I will put together a little book at the beginning of 2014 (complete with many photographs from all my adventures) called Travels with Tavel, The Book. It will be an edited, slightly more cohesive version of this blog with what I consider the best posts and the meat and potatoes of this “journey,” and less of, well, the “filler.” It will be for me to have and cherish in my own little way, but it will also be available to anyone who wants to read about it all, and maybe even share it with a 20-something who isn’t sure what to do with him/herself. Sound good?!
Friends walking while leaves surround them. Storm King Art Center. NY.
Right now, my online life consists mostly of midterm status updates and the occasional outdoor run (come on Tavel — you can do better than that!). There is more going on (I promise!) but it’s time to keep some of that stuff to myself. Despite the obviously less appealing blog material, I am very much excited about where I am going, although slightly impatient to finally get to the part where I have a job again (2.5 more years…!). As I bury my head deeper into my anatomy books and force my feet to stay grounded on the familiar NYC pavement, I still feel surrounded by exciting possibilities. At some point, I guess I just decided to share less of them with the world.
NYC skyline from Brooklyn.
It’s been wild getting here (like… really wild). As long as I have anything to do with it, the Travels with Tavel are far from over! Yet I feel compelled to explain what may become a new silence on the blog. Not knowing where I’m going or what is next has been one of the few constants in TwT, but I do know that finding out is still one of the most exciting adventures I could possibly be on.
I cautiously entered the water anticipating a cold chill to zip up my spine. The New Hampshire lake was much more comfortable than I thought it would be. I submerged my feet slowly, soaking in my own world of calm, surrounded by friends and strangers getting ready to take the plunge into the first leg of a triathlon. It was about 8am. The early-morning water welcomed my feet, then my ankles, then crept partway up my shins. It was all surprisingly pleasant — an early morning calm before the storm of competition.
Lake Winnipesaukee sunset.
I was about to participate in my first triathlon. In some ways, I felt like an impostor. As I stood there in a Nike sports bra and bikini bottom (complete with little beads dangling at the sides — which one of us was not afraid of creating a little extra drag in the water? This girl!), I realized that maybe it appeared I wasn’t taking this as seriously as the other athletes around me, most of whom were decked out in various forms of official triathlon gear and easily removable wet suits. But all who assumed this would have been wrong.
Sure, I wasn’t there to win (really!), or even necessarily “race.” I was simply there to finish, to challenge myself, and mostly to do it with the group of people who had encouraged me to join them. But this triathlon meant more to me than finishing quickly. Completing it at all (which I knew I would do no matter what, but hoped I could do with relative grace and success) would be my victory.
When it comes down to it, I was totally unprepared. I never swim (unless you count the 3 preparatory swims I did the week leading up to the triathlon — the first of which left me panting pretty uncomfortably hard, the second of which made me feel like I was trying to be Diana Nyad en route to Cuba — even though it was probably a 10 minute swim). I hadn’t biked in months and any biking I have done has been on totally flat concrete with a hybrid or mountain bike (not ideal). As for running, I had only just worked my way back up to 4 mile runs four years after a knee injury that prevented me from running at all.
Despite being pretty unprepared on paper, I was feeling good and ready to take on this challenge. As you get older, you realize a lot of these things are more mental challenges than physical ones. I knew that if I pushed myself, I could do it. Mental challenges have become my favorite hobby — now I just had to get my body to follow. Plus, I was lucky enough to have a very supportive, silly, low-key group of people doing it with me. All in all, the conditions for trying and giving it my best were perfect.
NYC skyline from the train.
I was definitely nervous in the weeks leading up to the triathlon, but then something changed (as it always does) on “race” day; I felt incredibly relaxed. Waking up with the sunrise, loading the beautiful road bikes we rented onto the car, and packing my caffeinated gels and electrolyte-rich gummies for the transition points made it all a little more exciting. Strapping a timer onto my ankle and getting my number written on my limbs made it all real. I was one of “them” now. I was ready to try.
The race started off brilliantly. When it was time for my heat to dive into the water, I was as calm as I could have hoped. And just as life goes, everything turned out a little differently than I expected. I thought the swim would be the most uncomfortable and foreign-feeling event, but I felt relaxed, strong, and calm swimming, like I was the only one in the water (until, a few laps later, I got the equivalent of “run over” by super swimmers — which I was surprisingly ok with). When you’re a competitive person, something switches in your brain after a race starts. My biggest concern was keeping track of that switch — dimming it, if possible, without fully extinguishing it — and staying reasonable (in other words, constantly reminding myself that I was not a competitor, I was a participant).
I could barely believe it when the swim was over, because I felt so… good! I felt strong, I was breathing well, and I couldn’t have asked for a better start. Despite competing as individuals, the group I was with decided we would all finish together. So I was surprised when I was one of the first ones out of the swim, and took my time walking to the transition area. I even got to take a bathroom break. Now that’s a relaxed triathlete!
Then we all mounted our bikes and set across the little wooden bridge to begin the ride. I had spent so much energy worrying about the quarter-mile swim that I had barely even considered the fact that there would be an extremely challenging (read: SUPER hilly) 12.1 mile bike ride afterwards. Biking is something I know how to do — right?! Well, yes and no. I have never really learned how to properly and strategically switch gears, and hills are not something a city kid gets to practice on much. Not to mention, I had never ever been on a road bike — let alone a $2,000 bike that I was borrowing for 1 day. So, my plan for “winging-it” was about to get interesting.
Sometimes in life, you just find yourself on a bike with a set of hills ahead of you. At that point, all you can do is start pedaling. So, that’s what I did. And man, this bike felt good! In some ways, I felt like the bike did the triathlon for me… But it took a mile or so to get comfortable with the ride. Less than half a mile into it, I encountered my first hill. I switched into the lower gears and gave it my best, with lactic acid building up a little too quickly in my quads. The burn came on a little too soon, given that this would be about an hour-long ride, so I tried to just focus on my breathing and pacing myself.
Summer chairs. Stanfordville, NY.
When I got to what I thought was the top of the hill, I quickly realized it was only the stoop leading to the front door of a fifth-floor walk-up apartment, and I still had the five flights of stairs to get up to (and then a trip to the rooftop, apparently). Cue: humbling experience.
As I rode, I think it was during mile 6 or 7 that the relentless presentation of consecutive hills began to wear on me a little. At this point, I had lost site of some of my teammates, and I realized I was riding my own race. I kept playing around with the gears, looking at the speed of other riders’ legs and trying to figure out what I should be doing. Then, I got to the hill that would put me in my place. Ah yes, everyone has that hill…
My legs were burning from the previous set of hills, and without a downhill in site, I was a little horrified when I approached this new one. Despite feeling mentally centered, suddenly my legs didn’t seem to have enough to give. There were people walking their bikes up the hill all around me, and I desperately refused to become one of them. But without putting the bike in a low enough gear, I suddenly realized I couldn’t even pedal forward. Sometimes in life, we get to a point where, despite our best intentions, our body just says: “nope, it’s too steep.”
This hill owned me, and when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to move forward, I had to do the one thing I was trying with all my might to avoid: I had to get off my bike, and walk it about 50 feet. As I joined a few other walkers around me, a guy kindly rode by and offered to help me if I needed it. I thanked him and said I was fine, and just did my best to get my beautiful rented bike and me up that beast of a hill. Once I got to the top, I figured I’d just slip back on the bike and keep riding. But, nope. I was huffing and puffing and no matter how hard I tried to pedal up the next smaller hill just enough to get my feet back in the toe clips, I couldn’t. I wasted so much time just trying to get back on my bike, that I eventually decided to just jog up one more hill with the bike (which quickly became a slow walk) and then make up for lost time the second half of the ride.
Much to my relief, I saw my race-buddy waiting for me at the top of this hill. I was able to get back on my bike, regroup, and ride out the whole second half feeling deeply relieved that there were some downhills, not to mention the entire ride was really just peaceful and beautiful, despite how demanding it was for me.
When I saw the 10 mile marker, I couldn’t believe I was almost done with the bike. This gave me the fire I needed to try and finish strong. After dropping the bike off at the transition and getting another swig of some disgusting lime-flavored caffeinated gel, I couldn’t have been more ready and excited for the run. I knew running was my strongest event and all I had to do was get through 3 more miles before I could say “I DID IT!”
Lake sunset. New Hampshire.
As I began to run, my legs felt a little heavier than I had hoped they would. It took about half a mile to get into it, but with my race-buddy at my side, I was able to find a good strong pace. That is, until I started getting a cramp in my side at about mile 1.5. We were running well and I knew I could have a strong run until the stitch in my side was so sharp I was forced to stop for about 10 seconds. Luckily, the stop was quick and I was able to run through it. Despite being pretty uncomfortable from the stitch, and knowing that my little ankle bracelet was digging into my skin, causing it to bleed a little, I felt about as good as I could have ever hoped to! We passed people who had passed me on the bike ride, and I knew we were going to finish strong. When I knew the finish line was near, I dug deep and made a little sprint to the finish line (after all, that competitive part of me needed its moment at some point!).
Then it happened: WE FINISHED. We did it. There is nothing more gratifying and more beautiful than putting yourself through something challenging, and crossing a finish line. In that moment, I just felt lucky. I felt grateful for the supportive people around me, grateful for my body and my knee for allowing me to get to this point again, grateful for all the strangers cheering us on along the way, grateful for the guy who offered to help me out when one hill got the best of me, grateful to New Hampshire for being so beautiful, and mostly, grateful for the people who were running alongside me — the ones who encouraged me and waited for me if I fell behind, and the ones who let me run ahead when I felt strong.
This race wasn’t a race at all. It was a personal challenge. Luckily, I got to do it with a group of people whose main focus was finishing together, not ahead of one another. In the end, what mattered wasn’t how quickly we ran through the finish line or what our times were; what mattered was that we finished, that we swam through the chaotic lake water, we biked our way through the steep and challenging uphills (even if some of them were so steep I nearly had to come to a complete standstill), and we ran through the finish with whatever we had left.
You learn a lot about yourself when you push your limits. With my thirties just around the corner, I realize that this has been a decade of doing just that. I’ve had a lot of hills and a lot of humbling moments in this decade, I’ve been surprised by what were my strongest moments and humbled by my most disappointing ones, but I’ve also had some of the most proud and gratifying moments of my life… so far.
With three decades and now a triathlon behind me, I am more convinced than ever that it doesn’t matter if you have to get off your bike and walk up some hills, or if you finish faster than anyone else: it’s all about pushing yourself through that finish line, being proud of yourself when you cross it, and recognizing who is there with you — both finishing with you and cheering you on — when you do. Then, it’s about being grateful that you’re there at all. And boy, I sure am.
My 19-year-old brother and I sat in the kitchen talking about where he might study abroad. The decision came down to Argentina or Spain, Argentina being the obvious choice that would allow him to explore his own culture as well as a country that will forever be a part of our lives. And then there is Spain where, because we are of Sephardic descent, he could go even deeper into exploring our roots, and even come back as a Spanish citizen if he so desires. (They tried to get rid of us several hundred years ago, now they want us back… It’s all very confusing!)
The dilemma is a familiar one. Ten years ago, that was me. As we spoke, I remembered arriving at JFK with heavy bags and folded uncertainty. I was embarking on my first international adventure — or at least my first trip abroad without my family in tow. It was a feeling that would resurface in different forms over the next several years as I took more and more chances wandering down unmarked sidewalks.
Pick-up truck rides in Mindo, Ecuador.
I remember our first night out as a group in the beach town of Castelldefels. It took us a good hour or so to realize we had accidentally chosen a gay bar to celebrate our arrival in Spain. We were slowly finding our way around, and getting lost was usually a happy consequence. I also remember walking home early the next morning and seeing swastikas graffitied on the walls — a not-so-subtle reminder that there was still a lot to learn from my semester in Europe.
Horse statue. Rome, Italy.
A week later, I celebrated my 20th birthday at a nightclub in Barcelona. It was our first night in the big new city, and after a quick unexpected cry with my best friend on a stoop (we were exhausted, disoriented, and starving, and after spending two hours in a fruitless quest to find a restaurant that was open before 10pm — welcome to Spain) we went from feeling like lost little kids crumbling on a street corner in a foreign city to realizing it was time to grow up. On my first day in Barcelona, I was completely overwhelmed by my new surroundings, but the uncertainty was quickly washed away by dancing until the sun came up. I woke up to breakfast with a view of the Mediterranean Sea glittering from the balcony of my host family’s apartment. It was that morning when I realize that everything was going to be ok; I might just fall in love with this place.
And I did.
Steps. Rome, Italy.
Then, I remembered all that happened while I was in Barcelona. I arrived while I was in love for the first time, but as the weeks went on, I began second-guessing my life at home… I was meeting new people, traveling to new places, and connecting with the world (and myself) in a whole new way. My semester in Spain became a catalyst for a lot more self-exploration that would occur during the next decade… And ahhh (good “ahh” not like “AHH!!”), the things (and people) I would soon discover…
Flammable truck. Plaza in Old Town Quito, Ecuador.
My twenties began on a dance floor in Spain. In many ways, I couldn’t have picked a better moment to represent all that would come my way in the next decade. There would be traveling, dancing, flirting, excitement, passion, love, confusion, disappointment… My twenties were totally and completely liberating like a tipsy night of dancing in a foreign city, and yet, at times, completely overwhelming and scary when the hangover of real life weighed heavy on the bliss of escapism. My twenties had flashes of light and moments of brief darkness like the strobe light that life can be, revealing and taking away all that I wanted in brief, momentary flashes of possibility…
And now I’m here, spending my days with cadavers, studying to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy with a whole new group of people and a blog that captures many of those flashes of adventures gone by. As thrilling and inspiring as the last decade has been, I find myself less scared and much more excited about the next decade that awaits me.
When I look around at my classmates, most of whom are in their early twenties and fresh out of college, I realize how grateful I am to be on my way out of this fine decade. I want to wish them all good luck, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. If anything, I’m excited for them! When I was in their position, I had no idea how crazy things might get — that is, if they’re lucky enough to take risks. Maybe I’m projecting here (yeah yeah yeah, just a little bit…), but I do believe that the lucky ones are about to embark on a totally life-changing, wild ride. They will take on adventures, get scared, and maybe even get vulnerable enough to learn something. There is so much excitement in one’s twenties… sometimes, too much (let’s be honest). But I’ve been there and done that! Like all good rides, it’s almost time for me to get off and let the next set of twenty-somethings get on. It’s been fun, but I am more than ok with moving onto the next ride…
The other day, I got to thinking about a fun game I like to play called “Everything is more fascinating when you should be studying for an exam!” It involves appreciating the little details in life (so I like to think). OK. That’s not true. Really, it’s about a funny shift that happens when you have so much to do that all you want to do is not do that stuff you have to do. (Err…. You know what I’m talking about, right!?) In short: the world becomes a completely intriguing and exciting place when it is anywhere but in your notes.
Goucho. Dolores, Argentina.
I wouldn’t call it plain old procrastination. It’s much more proactive than that. I have actually learned some very valuable information when studying for science midterms, like how nutritious cauliflower is (I know, right?! I mean, it’s white — so what the heck is going on in there?!), and what the average summer temperature in Iceland is (in case you were curious, it ranges from 50-77 degrees F. You’re welcome). I also find myself totally and suddenly fascinated by things that never piqued my interest before, like the plant on my desk (what are plants?? Think about that…), or the way the my floorboards line up (wait, I think I see an image of a dolphin in the wood!). I also come up with incredible, useless to-do lists when I’m studying that involve a combination of things I can check off and things I will never check off. For example: organize book shelf, buy figs, donate clothes, study for histology, check flights to Argentina, MOMA Rain Room, Tanzania (yes, just “Tanzania” — no verb)…
I do a lot of Googling flights the night before exams. I also enjoy reading the news. Ok, this is more like the time when I start reading the news-that-doesn’t-matter thanks to CNN… but I’m reading! Every now and then, I enjoy catching up on other people’s lives via Facebook. Actually, I sometimes like to choose the most random friend in my newsfeed and thoroughly investigate what they have been up to in life. (WHAT?! Don’t tell me it’s just me!) You might be that person, actually…
Hike in a cloud forest. Mindo, Ecuador.
I’m just over four weeks into grad school, and I have already had four monster midterms, with each one comprising at least 30% of my final grade for each course. Let’s just say this isn’t my first rodeo. In fact, I’ve spend the last two years studying for monster midterms upon which my future career somewhat depended (must I remind people that it was all just to be able to APPLY to grad school?! And now, here I am… MORE STUDYING!). The amount of studying that has been required of me is really hard to describe to the outside world, but we can all relate to having to study at some point in our lives. It’s not the same as having work. It’s much more… limitless. When there are no boundaries to where the work starts and ends, you just have to fill the space in. Sometimes anything will do!
Studying is like stuffing a sleeping bag into its case. Basically, you know you can make it fit [“it” being the massive amounts of information you don’t totally understand yet — much less comfortable than a sleeping bag], but unless you have a systematic way of getting it in there, it won’t work. The first part isn’t too hard to get in there, but then you really have to start smashing those corners in one piece at a time. This is, of course, when you realize there are things like zippers and drawstrings that aren’t in the right place. (And what’s the deal with that waterproof flap at the end there?!) You basically just give it your best and hope that it stays relatively contained until the moment you need it. Think that sounds easy? Try removing a sleeping bag under a time constraint using multiple choice options and a #2 pencil! Ok maybe studying is not like a sleeping bag at all. Sigh.
Mexico sand. Cancun, Mexico.
It’s fun and easy to complain about studying. But maybe there is a sick part of me that actually enjoys it. There better be a sick part of me that actually enjoys it, because I have several more years of intense studying ahead of me. If nothing else, there is a little thrill in feeling prepared for an exam, or walking out of a test and realizing that, hey, you know a lot of random shit (pardon my language). And of course, there is the joy of commiserating with classmates afterwards, all over an ice cold beer.
Well, today represents a very brief breather in between exams. If you, too, play the game “Everything is more fascinating when you should be studying for an exam!” feel free to share some of the fun things you do, or the random tidbits you’ve learned that have nothing to do with what you’re studying…
It’s a fascinating world out there. That’s not our fault! Luckily, having two exams a week for the next five weeks should give me plenty of time to explore it a little more thoroughly.
And yes, I thought up this blog post while I was studying.
Whew. It’s been almost three weeks since I began grad school, and all I can say is: WHOA.
As expected, it’s been pretty intense. For anyone who’s ever gone scuba diving, this morning feels a little like that moment when you come up out of the water, remove your mask, and take that first breath without a pressurized system actively pushing air into your body.
Galapagos coast. Ecuador.
In three weeks, there have been two midterms and almost 7 hrs of daily lectures. We’ve covered epithelium, embryology, cell biology, and pathology, and next week it’s midterm #3, covering bone, cartilage, connective tissue and the integumentary system. This post isn’t so much about me telling you what I have been doing in school (because, let’s be honest, that would be pretty boring… unless you’re interested in things like phosphotidlycholine, mannose-six-phosphate, and syncytiotrophoblasts — and, really, who isn’t these days?!). Rather, this is just an opportunity for me to take a little break, enjoy my coffee, and flex my wanderlust muscles before they atrophy.
Rooftops. Old Town Quito, Ecuador.
Per usual, all this science and studying makes my wanderlust light up like a firefly in a glass jar. I try and keep it contained most of the time, but if I do that too long it begins to expand around me like a too tiny wet suit. My little soul is boiling over with travel cravings — particularly for Southern Spain, a place I crave constantly (I like to think it’s because my ancestors, who were from there, are trying to get me to “come home”), or for more foreign-to-me places like Thailand, Zimbabwe, and Israel. Where does all this wanderlust come from? Sometimes I wonder…
Sea Lions. Glapagos, Ecuador.
While I am very happy and grateful to be where I am, doing what I am doing, studying what I’m studying, working towards what I am working towards, I can’t seem to ditch that little flickering light of wanderlust. Although it must be quieted for now, it doesn’t seem to get dimmer no matter how much science I bury it under. In a way, all the science has heightened my appreciation of other things; I find myself more touched, more affected, more grateful for the littlest beautiful things I see, hear or read about.
As far as my wanderlust goes, I don’t know when, I don’t know how, and I don’t know where, but that little tiny glow is going to take me somewhere, eventually. It will get its chance to light up more than just a jar again soon, and I genuinely cannot wait for that moment. But until then, I’ll enjoy the dark blues of being under this (sometimes overwhelmingly) vast new sea. There is some pretty cool stuff down here, too.
Thank you for that breath of fresh air. It is now time to put the scuba mask back on…
You know those moments in life when something you’ve worked so hard for actually happens? When something you’ve thought endlessly about, something you’ve anticipated with a complex combination of excitement and apprehension, something you’ve hoped for and worked for and actually dreamed about comes true? Tomorrow is that day. Tomorrow, 8 years after graduating from college, I finally begin grad school.
Driving through horse country. Amenia, NY.
This entire blog has become an accidental journal (although I really hate referring to it that way) of a girl with a lot of wanderlust traveling through her twenties and around the world to find herself, or at least what she wants to do with herself. I always had a strong sense of who I am, but for many years, I found myself frustratingly positioned in-between so many careers. I felt tugged by many different curiosities, and pressured by an outside force to define myself by only one of them. On the first day of TwT (“Travels with Tavel Has Finally Arrived” – July 7, 2009), I began writing with a broken heart and a whole lot of chutzpah to drop the confused-twenty-something act (which was, well, far from an act), dig deep, and really make my career dreams come true — whatever they were. At the time, my dream was as simple as starting this blog. I soul-searched and wandered through foreign countries, spurred on by an insatiable sense of adventure, yet I was always anchored by a counter-desire to find those things that would eventually stabilize me — a career, a job, love… (Whoops! Did I accidentally become a total cliche!?)
At first, the wanderlust won. But through my travels, like the archaeology minor I was before all the pre-med “stuff” began, I slowly and carefully chiseled away at the wanderlust to find out what was really happening underneath. I began to realize that, while it was a completely real part of who I am (and still is), it was also a distraction from something else I really wanted in my life, but felt too overwhelmed by to pursue. After dream jobs that didn’t feel quite right and inspiring international volunteer experiences, that twenty-something veil of confusion (or really, inner-conflict over what to do) was slowly lifted. Eventually, it just became too obvious to ignore: I wanted to be in healthcare, and I wanted to become a Doctor of Physical Therapy, no matter how much hard work and money it might require.
Bird, beach, Mexico.
If you’ve been paying any attention to TwT, you’ve heard it all before. This is that moment. Tomorrow, after two years of nonstop science classes just to get to this point, I start grad school. I might be older than most of my classmates, I might have had to work harder to get here, but tomorrow it’s an even playing field. Tomorrow, my new classmates and I start something together that I feel like I’ve been working towards all alone, for almost a decade.
Everyone learns their own lessons their own way. I couldn’t be more excited and more grateful for what I have learned during this eight-year post-college adventure to this place right now. As the curtain begins to shut on my twenties (not until September though — not there yet!!) I hope that this blog has succeeded in capturing the incredible journey that being twenty-something can be. As long as you’re willing to take chances, work hard, and not worry about your future for a little bit (a little responsible irresponsibility can get you surprisingly far sometimes!), it can be one of the most revealing decades of your life — if not the most revealing. It wasn’t always pretty, that’s for sure [let us not forget Juan the Amoeba (“Living the Dream (in the Fetal Position)“), a dislocated knee, travel disasters, and my initially humbling return to academia (“Hill Climb“)] but it was freeakin’ worth it. That’s all that matters now.
Driving through horse country. Amenia, NY.
And yet, despite delaying and intensifying this already long process of beginning grad school, I am forever grateful that I know what it feels like to ride a horse up a volcano in Ecuador (and, well, it’s less comfortable in the gluteal-region than you might think — Read: “Pain in the Cotopaxi“), or how the heart skips a beat when a sea lion swims up next to you in the Galapagos Islands… I know how scary it is to have someone in another country try and slash your bag open with a razor blade (“Quito Slashed“) or to move to another country without knowing another soul (“And So It Begins…“). Now, to add to the list, I know exactly how it feels to work for something like you’ve never had to work before, and then to arrive at the beginning of that new story…
As I begin grad school, and surely prepare to be humbled all over again, I am taking with me almost a decade of valuable experiences. There is a lot further to go, but at least — after all my trips abroad — I made it here.
It’s a crazy thing when you finally arrive at your destination, but if I’ve learned anything from all my traveling, it’s that arriving is never the end of the road. It’s just another start to yet another sure to be wild adventure in life. So, here I go.
I know NYC isn’t perfect. It’s often loud, rude, abrasive, dirty, frustrating… But it’s also beautiful. Every now and then, if you pay attention, you can smell honeysuckles in a breeze in Brooklyn. And when you least expect it, a stranger on the subway might actually do something kind. Today, as I rode the subway from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side with a perfect latte in my hands, I realized how content I was to just be on that train, around all those strangers, with a completely blank day ahead. Sometimes, despite so many big things in this city (noises, crowds, buildings, garbage piles), it is the littlest things that must be recognized so that you’re grateful to be here.
I think it’s so important to notice and appreciate life’s simple pleasures (whatever they might be for you). Maybe it’s because this is the last week and a half of calm before a three-year grad school storm descends upon me, but before things get too crazy, I am going to go ahead and acknowledge those little things that make me happy right now. That’s the only way to make them become the big things.
Taken while on my bike, riding north along the Hudson River.
1. Bike rides along the Hudson River. I don’t care how long you’ve lived in New York City — if you haven’t gone for a bike ride, a stroll, a run, or some other ride (scooter? rollerblade?) up and down the West Side, you are not really living in New York City (if yaknowwaddi mean). This is one of the most serene parts of the city and, having grown up here, I appreciate it even more because I know what it used to be like. Trust me: Between the High Line, the new piers, the cleaner Hudson River and the generous bike lanes, this is one of the City’s best improvements. Biking along the water on a hot summer day is one of my happiest NYC places. You’d be surprised how zen it can be.
2. Caribbean food (and drinks) outside. Let’s be honest: Caribbean food is good all year round. But nothing is better than eating some jerk chicken (with someone you like!) outside on an 80-degree night, or sipping sangria at happy hour under a palapa on Amsterdam Avenue after a hard day’s work. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: despite Spanish/Turkish/Argentine/Polish/Lithuanian blood, I am pretty sure I have a Caribbean soul. Between the food, the music, the lifestyle and the weather, there is not a single day that I don’t crave being on a Caribbean island. Any experience that allows me to at least pretend that I am is as sweet to me as sweet plantains in my tummy.
3. Juice. Ok, so maybe this is an expensive treat, but fresh juice after walking around or working out on a summer day makes my mind, body AND soul happy. Kale, apple, cucumber, mint, coconut, beet, carrot, orange, ginger, spinach, lemon, grapefruit, berries, bananas…. Any combination of reds, greens, oranges, and yellows works for me. When I am sipping a fresh juice in the spring/summertime, nothing feels better. This is a great (and yes, expensive) trend. Juice it up out there, people. Your body will thank you later.
4. Honeysuckle breezes in Brooklyn. It happened last night. I was walking down Hoyt Street in Boerum Hill when a perfumed breeze swept me away from everything else I could see. I knew instantly that it was honeysuckle, having spent my childhood summers surrounded by honeysuckle bushes at an old beach house my family used to rent. The smell was so familiar, and yet so unexpected just off of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. I couldn’t help but feel a sudden overwhelming sense of happiness — a swirl of memories combined with an excitement for the “right now.” Within moments, I arrived at my destination and the breeze was forgotten, but here is my attempt to recapture it.
5. It’s only June. That’s right. We have the whole month, plus July, August, and even September to enjoy all these little summery things!!! That’s a lot of fresh berries, cold drinks, and open-toe shoe-time! I can’t even tell you how happy summer makes me (or maybe I just spent a blog post trying to…). Forgive me for wanting to savor the moment. It won’t be long before I am spending all my long-awaited summer days locked in a frigid cadaver lab, following through on a dream I once had of becoming a physical therapist…
Wherever you are, think about the little things that make you smile right now. I have some very happy people in my life right now, and some that are going through challenging times. Whichever one of these people you are, I guarantee that a honeysuckle breeze can come at any moment, you just have to be willing to notice it.
Feel free to share one or two of your happy “things” as a comment. In the meantime, this song also makes me happy. Yeah, it’s Beyonce, and WHAT? Hit it, girl:
Rachel Tavel, DPT, CSCS, is a published travel writer turned Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). She earned her BA in Spanish and Archaeology from Bowdoin College and her DPT from NYU.
After Bowdoin, Tavel interned at American Express Publishing, where she worked with Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, Executive Travel, Departures, and Centurion magazines.
In 2007, she co-authored the Frommer's guidebook, "MTV Best of Mexico" (Wiley Publishing, 2007), for which she wrote the Acapulco, Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo, and Taxco chapters.
From late 2006 to early 2010, Tavel served as the editor of an independent school's annual magazine. In addition, she worked as an editor and writer for the VIVA Travel Guides to Argentina, Quito and Guatemala. Her photography has been published in Everywhere magazine and the VIVA Guides to Quito and Argentina.
After a six-month stint working as a staff writer for VIVA Travel Guides in Quito, Ecuador, Tavel returned to the US to fulfill the 10 pre-med pre-requisites (at NYU and Harvard Extension School) to apply to Doctor of Physical Therapy programs.
In 2013, Tavel was admitted to NYU's Doctor of Physical Therapy program. She graduated in 2016. While there, Tavel became a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and earned her certification in basic mat Pilates.
In addition to working as a physical therapist, Tavel contributes to various blogs about health/fitness/wellness, including the Huffington Post and Bustle.com. [See "Tavel Links" for more information.]
Last but not least, Tavel is writing a travel memoir about her adventures as a twenty-something career-changer... Stay tuned!
In the World:
Argentina, Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Nevis, Portugal, Spain, St. Kitt's, St. Maarten, Turkey, United Kingdom, USA, Vatican City.
In the US:
Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina,Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia.