By CAMERON MOFID
Minutes to midnight on December 29th, 2019, Cebu Pacific flight 5J49 landed in Melbourne. Twelve months and 73 flights earlier, I began an odyssey through 46 countries across six continents. My life would never be the same.
Less than two years prior, I was 17 years old and in the midst of my senior year of high school. I had recently moved away from San Diego, where I spent the majority of my childhood, to attend the Academia Sánchez-Casal, or ASC, a boarding school for tennis players in Naples, Florida. There, I trained tirelessly on green clay courts alongside my graduating class, which was made up of 10 other students that represented seven countries. Despite acquiring a junior world ranking, I grew doubtful regarding my future in competitive tennis. Previously enjoyable practices became a chore, and I dreaded the thought of playing for four more years in college. I was either to chase a dying dream or initiate a new life chapter. Against my coaches’ advice, I hung up my rackets, leaving behind the only thing I had known for the last decade. My focus shifted to the development of Legends United, a charitable platform I founded, which raises money for player-based initiatives through procured tennis memorabilia.
Soon after my 18th birthday and near the end of my final semester, Emilio Sánchez, Founder of ASC, allowed me to miss a few weeks of school to collect players’ equipment at professional tournaments in Europe. One afternoon in Madrid, Novak Djokovic, my childhood idol, walked past me as he was getting ready to leave for the day. He graciously heard my plea for an item donation, and then explained how touched he was by my efforts. As I gazed into Novak’s eyes, I knew his words were genuine, and after our conversation he donated a signed match shirt. Once we parted ways, I rushed over to a public bathroom, struggling to suppress a multitude of emotions on the way. Shaking uncontrollably inside one of the stalls, tears rolled, then flooded down my face. In a few months, I was supposed to begin my business studies at the University of Miami. But in that moment, crying inside a bathroom stall in Spain, I knew that if Novak believed that I was capable of great things, I had to as well. On June 1st, 2018, only a week before my high school graduation, I deferred my enrollment to UM by one year.
Before graduating, I connected with tennis phenom Nick Kyrgios and his brother Christos, who established the NK Foundation to support underprivileged youth in their sporting ambitions. Over the next six months, in partnership with the NK Foundation, I traversed Asia and Europe on behalf of Legends United, launched the memorabilia sales via online auctions, and was recognized with an article by the governing body of men’s tennis, the ATP. By the end of 2018, many of the world’s top players had donated their belongings, and the NK Foundation had a revenue stream from the memorabilia.
I began my 2019 travels in the Dominican Republic, sipping smoothies and canoeing in Punta Cana with Manu, an ASC alum from the Philippines. Little did I know, that would be the first stop of my six-continent voyage. After a weekend at San Juan’s San Sebastián Street Festival, I was back in work mode at the 2019 Delray Beach Open. In collaboration with the tournament, I collected players’ apparel and equipment, which was sold to fans in an effort to raise funds for selected charitable organizations. Between the memorabilia sales and Tennis Channel’s feature on Legends United, the event was an extraordinary success.
Fast forward to mid-March, both my 19th birthday and the year anniversary of my UM acceptance had passed. I was less than five months away from the start of my freshman year. The Miami Open, which relocated out of Key Biscayne’s tropical paradise, no longer enjoyed the same intimate energy from the contingent of rambunctious Latin American fans. There was enough merchandise with the NK Foundation in Australia to maintain online sales for months, and admittedly, I wanted to travel freely before beginning four years of studies in Miami. With my savings, intensive flight booking strategies, and black Samsonite suitcase, I set off for Europe. At 7:40 p.m. on March 30th, I landed on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
In addition to ASC, I spent some time at the Rafa Nadal Academy in Mallorca, where I cultivated friendships with players from around the world. One of my closest friends, Kuhan, who was less than a year away from conscription into the Singaporean Army, persuaded me to visit him in Spain. Watching Rafa train in such a cozy environment was a treat, but I wasn’t there for the tennis. Being the bad influence I can occasionally be, I dragged Kuhan out of his room to Palma, an hour away, while he was in crutches recovering from an ankle injury. Although the train ride and walk through the rustic streets on crutches tired him out, Kuhan and I hopped between trendy bars serving tapas. Due to Kuhan’s physical state, he was unable to join me for a game of billiards, and so I challenged a group of German students standing nearby. Instead of billiards, David, the most extroverted of the group, led us to the town of Magaluf. Overwhelmed by tacky neon signs and sweaty British tourists, we bounced between shabby nightclubs. Whether it was David’s charisma, or Kuhan’s makeshift dance moves, it was an evening to remember. I deposited Kuhan back at Rafa's academy the next day, just slightly worse for wear, and hightailed out of Mallorca for a flight across the Mediterranean Sea.
While in Morocco, I supported my friend Adrián, who was competing in Marrakech’s ATP 250 tournament. When I wasn’t in the stands cheering him on, I explored the bustling North African city. I took on the role of Aladdin, navigating through fumes of grilled meats around the web of roads. In fact, I was so invested in my Disney role that I wore an Arabian headdress and rode a camel into the Moroccan desert. I complimented my desert experience with a massage at a hammam, an Islamic communal bathhouse, and traditional Moroccan tea at local cafes. During my stay, Adrián won two grueling matches to advance past the Qualifying Draw, including a three-set battle against the local favorite. On my sixth and final day, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to catch a Ryanair flight to Sofia, Bulgaria, via Memmingen, Germany. I planned on visiting Ben, another player from Rafa’s academy. I hadn’t realized that Memmingen draws freezing temperatures in April, and the tiny regional airport had little temperature control to accommodate for my T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. After freezing both in the airport and on the plane, I fell ill once I arrived in Bulgaria. As my condition improved, Ben’s mother entrusted me with their Mercedes-Benz, as Ben didn’t have a driver's license. Nevertheless, I let Ben drive, and due to the rain’s slippery roads we crashed into a highway divider. The airbags erupted and the car emitted a stream of smoke, but after a “negotiation” with the Bulgarian police officers, no charges were filed against us. Thankfully, I avoided a Bulgarian prison cell, which I assume is unpleasant.
Next stop: Athens. The Acropolis was like a time-machine back into Greek mythology, and I supplemented my otherworldly experience with two fascinating discoveries: the souvlaki and the knowledge that Lindsay Lohan had her own Greek nightclub. By boat, I voyaged to the lesser-known picturesque island of Aegina and wandered its enchanting ruins. Athens left me with a taste of Mediterranean culture, and fond memories of the affectionate locals.
After spending time in Eastern Europe, I backtracked west for my final stop, the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters. I raced a Ferrari up Monaco’s rugged cliffs, channeled my inner James Bond while gambling at the Casino Monte-Carlo, and of course relished in the tournament and its scenic backdrop. Glamour was infused in the air, and its aroma was ubiquitous throughout the Côte d'Azur. My former Italian tennis coach, Renzo, was also in Monte-Carlo with his family, who had hosted me in Milan only a few months prior. During the epitome of a Monegasque night out, Renzo and I danced to a performance by the legendary Bob Sinclair, alongside Olympic Gold Medalist Stan Wawrinka. Between the €25 drinks and the house music that reverberated throughout the iconic Jimmy’z, the evening’s revelry was unparalleled. When not in Monaco, I savored escargot and other local dishes at boutique restaurants in the charming town of Menton. Renzo’s uncle, the incomparable Riccardo Piatti, invited me to his state-of-the-art tennis facility in Bordighera, Italy. After train rides between the French/Italian border and a tour of the Piatti Tennis Center, the first notable set of my world exploration was over.
I woke up in Florida, where I rented a room on a side street off Delray Beach’s vibrant Atlantic Avenue. Staring at Apple Maps one morning, I zoomed in on Africa, entranced by visions of elephants and lions roaming the continent. On impulse, I booked a one-way flight to Nairobi. When I lived in Boca Raton, I used to frequent my local yogurt shop, where I became friends with the owner. His sister-in-law, Anne, resides in Nairobi. Taking on the role of travel planner, Anne booked me at her favorite bed and breakfast and drafted an incredible itinerary. Late at night on May 5th, I landed in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. If Morocco felt like another world, Kenya was another universe. Anne and I fed giraffes, dined at traditional restaurants, and bribed a museum guard to give us a private tour of the Nairobi National Museum after hours.
Then, once Anne introduced me to Joe, a local guide, I devised a journey to Mount Kilimanjaro. After the seven-hour drive to the border with Joe and his wife, Tanzanian immigration officials informed me I was missing the necessary medical documents. They charged me a “fee,” and then forged the signature of a doctor on my yellow fever vaccination certificate, which made my entry possible. The waterfalls and rock formations radiated magic. While I only had a few hours in Mount Kilimanjaro, immersion in its biodiversity transported me into 1967’s The Jungle Book. On my way back to Nairobi, I stopped at the Amboseli National Park, where I admired Southern Kenya’s prolific elephant herds. Upon returning to Nairobi, the idea of a night out in Africa was too tempting, so I depleted my energy chugging Tusker and shooting the breeze with fellow bargoers. During a band’s live performance of Kenyan folk music, charismatic locals demonstrated rhythmic brilliance and equipped me with the moves I needed to dance to the melodious voices and percussion. Before leaving, I visited a local tennis club, where I met with children from Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. Being exposed to so many different cultures at ASC, I was well aware that tennis draws people from all backgrounds. That said, I often fail to recognize the adversity so many members of the tennis community face. The young players inspired me with stories of how they walk miles on end for training sessions and string their own rackets with whatever off-brand Chinese string they can find. At times I take tennis for granted, losing myself in a world of luxury. In that moment, these children brought me back to Earth.
I then flew to exotic Antananarivo, where I recreated DreamWorks’ Madagascar at the zoo and lemur park. Being in the presence of King Julien’s relatives as they leaped over cobblestones and scaled trees was an honor. In all honesty, I’m pretty sure the movie subconsciously drove me to visit the country in the first place. Eventually, I wound up at the country’s most renowned tennis club, and in my trademark flip-flops, I hit with one of the country's former Davis Cup players. After slugging balls with him in the humid afternoon, he and his friends picked me up in a van that evening, determined to teach me how Madagascar does nightlife. With purple light and neon green ribbons overhead, we danced to the DJ’s mix of French party anthems and Malagasy rap until 3:00 a.m. It wasn’t my most responsible decision to go clubbing in Madagascar, but then again, I was in Africa on less than a week's notice to begin with.
Next, Johannesburg. To my luck, I met a charismatic Bongani, my hotel’s tour guide. Bongani took me to the Lion & Safari Park, Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto, and the FNB Stadium from the 2010 World Cup. While there was more of the city’s sightseeing to do, I had another unconventional plan in mind, a two-day road trip through some of South Africa’s bordering countries: Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique. Bongani took some convincing, but soon enough he was navigating the unpaved roads that led to Lesotho. After a day of wandering the capital of Maseru and hiking up the Thaba Bosiu mountain, we visited the Lesotho Lawn Tennis Association. I discussed my background with the director, and she allowed me to practice with some of the top juniors, who, despite the poor conditions, were thrilled just to hit balls. I couldn’t help but think about their lack of opportunity. Lesotho doesn’t hold a single ITF tournament. Its citizens, classified as some of the poorest people on Earth, often face insurmountable financial obstacles when trying to compete in South Africa. The system essentially bars them from becoming the next Roger Federer, and many of them probably won’t ever leave their enclaved country. Regardless, this somber reality had no bearing on their happiness, as their smiles were powerful enough to illuminate all of Africa. The next morning we arrived in Eswatini, formerly named Swaziland. Following a visit to a glass factory and the Sibebe Rock, we continued to Mozambique.
Due to the impromptu nature of the trip, I didn’t have a visa and needed a printed hotel booking to obtain one. Normally, this would not be an issue, but there was virtually no cell signal for miles. I frantically sprinted between the two immigration offices, struggling to email my recently reserved hotel’s details. As much as the Mozambican immigration officer and I wanted to scream and argue, my Spanish and his Portuguese were too distant for successful communication. So even our mutual desire to insult one another was a disaster. As the sun was setting, I finally printed my confirmation and obtained my visa. Our next dilemma came when the Mozambican police refused to allow Bongani’s car into the country because there was a minor crack in the windshield. They made it clear they would only “accommodate” us if we drove two hitchhikers they had to Maputo, the capital. In a country with a history of carjackings, this was blatantly unsafe. That said, desperate, and refusing to give the immigration officer that satisfaction, we reluctantly agreed to transport the two middle-aged men in the back seats. Their polite demeanor and good nature didn’t fit the description of violent murders. In what seems to be a frequent occurrence, I befriended these strangers, and they agreed to give us a tour of Maputo in return for driving them home. By the time we arrived it was already dark, and we could only spare a few hours as I had a flight out of Johannesburg the following morning. I saw Mozambique at night, immediately drawn to the sounds of crashing waves and the gratifying ocean fragrance. Our newfound guides led us to the waterside fish market, symbolic fortress, and historical railway station. After our goodbyes, Bongani endured an arduous seven-hour drive through the night and I caught my flight to Cape Town with only a few hours to spare.
If Johannesburg was New York City, Cape Town was a coastal Los Angeles suburb. While strolling down the city’s waterfront, I saw an ad for shark cage diving. The next morning, I immersed myself in the Indian Ocean, with only a rusty metal rod separating me from some of Earth’s most vicious predators. As these sharks circled, I couldn’t discern whether this was a vivid dream or a euphoric reality. Only when I put my hand through the cage, and nearly had it bitten off, did I realize this was in fact real, and my dreams were in sync with my reality. On my last day, I ventured to Cape Point, known as the southernmost tip of Africa. I veered off the beaten path and descended to a part of the point untouched by tourists. There, one can witness the confluence of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, where the warmer Indian is soothed by the colder Atlantic. No people. No land. Only endless ocean. On my way to observe the penguins, I noticed yet another captivating ad, this one for skydiving. Maybe it was Cape Town’s effective marketing campaigns, or my abnormal adrenaline levels, or both, but a few hours later I was 13,000 feet in the sky. In free fall, limbs detach from all restraints, and I embraced that physical release with screams that sprayed throughout the frigid air. The day ended with rugby, as I cheered alongside locals in support of South Africa’s Stormers as they took on New Zealand’s Crusaders. If the Middle East was anything like Africa, I was up for another rollercoaster ride.
I arrived at my Dubai hotel at 3:00 a.m. following a nine-hour flight from Cape Town. After some sleep, I started by ascending the world’s tallest building: the Burj Khalifa, which stands at 2,722 feet. The blinding sun and sandy air blocked any clear visuals, but I guess that’s what happens when man builds a metropolis in the Arabian Desert. Although my local driver thought it was absurd, I insisted on making a stop to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Center, the site of the ATP 500 tournament. As tennis fans can understand, walking into a stadium where the greats of the sport competed is inspiring, regardless of if the event is in session or not. After satisfying my inner tennis fan, I stood in awe of the Burj Al Arab, the legendary seven-star hotel. Unfortunately, its exclusivity was an obstacle too great, as a reservation is required to enter the hotel’s immediate vicinity. I then headed away from the ultramodern skyscrapers and luxurious sports cars, as I made my way inland for a desert safari. Temperatures that neared 100 degrees resulted in a suffocating heat, as gusts of wind blasted sand into my eyes while I bolted through the hills on an ATV. I couldn’t help but contrast that experience to days before in Cape Town, where I went from submergence in water to engulfment by sand. My time in the UAE ended with a day trip to Abu Dhabi and dinner with a Norwegian tennis friend of mine, who lived in Dubai. The next day, accompanied by French and Polish tourists, I was sailing around Oman’s Musandam Peninsula. My Disney persona evolved into Captain Jack Sparrow while navigating the ancient fishing villages and jagged rock formations throughout the Strait of Hormuz. It may not have been the same part of the world as Pirates of the Caribbean, but glistening waters and towering cliffs could be admired in both settings. I left this gem for the more well-known Tel Aviv.
Due to the political tensions between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, getting there is a challenge in itself. Despite Israel’s close proximity to the UAE, it took over 11 hours, including an exhausting seven-hour layover in Amman, Jordan. Immediately I noticed all of Israel’s differing characteristics to its neighbors: language, religion, architecture, gastronomy, and music. Israel was like a puzzle piece that didn’t fit with its surrounding pieces, not better, not worse, just extraordinarily different. I had a habit of frequently checking the ATP/WTA Live app, as it kept me updated with all of tennis’ current scores. When I arrived at my Tel Aviv hotel a few hours before dawn, I opened the app and was pleasantly surprised to see there was an ATP Challenger tournament in the nearby Jerusalem. After a couple hours of rest, I made my way to one of the main stations and boarded a Jerusalem-bound bus. I have this bizarre desire to visit every country within reach, regardless of safety concerns or any other travel precautions. Syria, being a boarding country to Israel, sparked my interest, and their problems with terrorism and their ongoing civil war didn’t faze me. For the record, this was blatantly foolish. I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me on the bus, and after some small talk I asked her if there is a way to get to Syria. She looked at me with a straight face and told me to take the direct line straight from Jerusalem to Damascus. My eyes lit up, and as I was about to inquire on the costs and travel time, she burst into laughter. I awkwardly laughed along with her and discovered that Middle Eastern politics were less straightforward than I understood them to be.
Eventually I made my way to the tournament, where I recognized familiar faces. Whether it be the ATP Tour Manager, with whom I had crossed paths on numerous occasions across the globe, or the many players who had supported my foundation, tennis’ small circle had surfaced in the Middle East. After watching some matches and catching up with the tennis community, I did some sightseeing around Tel Aviv before booking a tour of Jerusalem and Palestine for the following day. Back at ASC, I vaguely remembered hearing that prior to my enrollment there was a Guatemalan tennis player that wound up studying in Israel. I found his Instagram and messaged him, and soon after we were taking shots in his college dorm. We bypassed the customary small talk, as laughter flowed freely over ridiculous anecdotes of irresponsible behavior during our playing days. We spent that night at Tel Aviv’s eclectic Jimmy Who, where the dim lighting, vintage accessories, and exposed brickwork produced an underground vibe. While clubbing, I learned that Israel boasts an unlikely, but notable Spanish speaking population. Rudy explained that due to the popularity of telenovelas, Israeli women occasionally develop broken Spanish. A few hours after my night of pulsating music concluded, the sun rose and I was headed back to Jerusalem.
The Old City of Jerusalem has to be one of the most diverse places on Earth. The Western Wall brought me back millennia, as I observed Orthodox Jews, with sidelocks and long black coats, reciting passages from the Torah. By way of a 30-second walk I crossed over to the Muslim Quarter, where I watched as women in hijabs maneuvered their way through heavy foot traffic. In the West Bank I roamed the streets, conversed with a local Palestinian guide, and floated along the renowned Dead Sea.
I reserved one last ludicrous plan for my final day in the Middle East, which featured one of the world’s Seven Wonders: Petra. It was 2:00 a.m. at the time and I had a flight leaving at 5:05 a.m. the following morning from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, which, as the most secure airport on Earth, requires at least three hours to pass through its numerous security checkpoints. Given the 16-hour round-trip commute to Petra and airport arrival requirements, theoretically I could budget some time in Jordan. So I went for it. I boarded a 3:00 a.m. bus to Eilat, a port town located on Israel’s southern tip along the Jordanian border. After the draining bus rides and lengthy immigration process, I arrived at the astounding ancient city. Prior to walking in, a solo traveler, Alex from Australia, started a conversation with me. Alex, who is a few years older than me, sold his house and left his corporate job selling timeshares to travel the world. As Alex and I learned about each other, another solo traveler hopped into the conversation, Josh, an intrepid surfer from New Zealand. While talking turns storytelling, we made our way to Petra’s heart. Eventually, we stood in the center of this third-century BCE treasure: a city built into sandstone cliffs, with implemented Eastern and Hellenistic architecture as inspiration for its designs.
In the midst of admiring the engravings, a man, wearing jewelry and black eyeliner, stopped us. As it turns out, there are still a group of nomads who live in Petra’s caves, maintaining their traditional ways of life. The man explained that for a small fee, locals, like him, guide tourists to the top of the cliffs, though there are no real safety measures. Because I was wearing flip-flops, I knew it would be a treacherous climb. This adventure, which lacked the formality of liability forms, had no safety nets nor ropes attached to harnesses, and I struggled to keep my weight balanced while pushing up on the stones. That said, it was worth it. As the only tourists up there, Alex, Josh, and I had the unparalleled opportunity to see Petra from a bird’s-eye-view. The sky’s thick blue brushstrokes harmonized with the cliff’s more chiseled details. While interacting with locals in their humble abode, Alex spoke about his travel plans to honor his late mother, who had passed away from cancer only a few months prior. The moments that transpired on those cliffs would emerge as the genesis of our friendship: Alex said his heart nearly stopped when I slipped and nearly fell off the edge while posing for a picture. As this trip came to a close, I was already looking forward to planning the next one. Alex mentioned that he had never been to South America.
Only eight days after my transatlantic trip back to Miami, Alex and I mapped out our South American exploration over WhatsApp calls and texts. We had planned on meeting in Buenos Aires in the middle of June. Alex would travel from Prague and I would fly over from Guatemala City, where I planned to spend a few days catching up with a tennis friend of mine, Joaquin.
After arriving in Guatemala, Joaquin immediately instructed me to avoid the perilous “white taxis,” which I found to be an unusual welcome message. But after passing through a sea of armed guards, it was evident that Central America was another beast, and safety was not to be taken lightly. Joaquin played in one of Guatemala’s ITF junior tournaments that week, so he tasked his brother, Arturo, with showing me around. Arturo took me to one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes, Pacaya. Incorrectly expecting a card machine, we didn’t have enough cash to pay for the mandatory guide, so we had two options: leave or use a guide-in-training. We chose the latter, but what we didn't know was that our guide was a child who had cut class earlier in the day and only spoke a few words of English. Nonetheless, he was incredibly knowledgeable. While riding a horse, I learned about the volcano’s history almost entirely in Spanish. The other guides teased him, but his chubby cheeks and short stature was misleading. This kid was a young Indiana Jones. A machete nearly half his height was strapped to his waist, and he nonchalantly explained that it’s used to decapitate snakes. While guiding us to one of the volcano's hazardous areas, where a fierce heat radiated from the rocks, he told us stories about his secret girlfriend. Pacaya was his stomping ground.
The next day, Joaquin came off one of the biggest wins of his junior career, as he upset the #1 seed in the second round. However, in recognition of my last night, I persuaded nearly half of the tournament’s junior players, including Joaquin, to join Arturo and me that night at Mr. Absurd, a popular college bar. It was catastrophic. Whether it was the blasting music, or vaguely remembered conversations, I completely lost track of time, and Arturo. In the middle of the night in crime-ridden Guatemala City, Arturo was nowhere to be found. After panicking and waking his parents, he casually strolled into his home and provided few details as to his earlier whereabouts. I barely slept as I needed to be at the airport at 4:00 a.m. for my three-leg journey to Buenos Aires. For the record, Joaquin lost in straight sets to an unseeded player the following morning, which was most likely a result of the debilitating night out.
Accustomed to being a solo traveler, collaborating on an sightseeing itinerary wasn’t a frequent occurrence. That said, Alex and I share many interests, so protracted debates were a rarity. An unorthodox first stop, our expedition began at a burial ground. We admired the grandiose mausoleums at the Recoleta Cemetery, which serves as the eternal resting place for Argentina's most prominent individuals. Our next destination was the prestigious Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, the host of the ATP 250 tournament. Built in 1892 as Argentina’s first tennis facility, the club is ingrained in South America’s sporting history. At the gate, we were denied entrance as the club has a strict policy prohibiting non-members from visiting the club. When the guard refused our initial plea, I told a half-truth, as I remembered I still had my press card in my wallet from when I wrote regularly for Florida Tennis Magazine. I explained that I was a professional tennis writer in America doing a feature on the club. After presenting my identification, the guard made a call to one of the directors, who granted us entry.
Moments later, just as the pros have done for decades, we were welcomed by an abundance of rich red clay as we walked onto the stadium court. My inner child, who once dreamed of greatness, wished that the myriad of empty seats towering over us was filled with a contingent of devoted fans and the sounds of rapturous applause. Alex was ecstatic, as he realized that legends, such as Rafa Nadal, lifted trophies on that very court.
Over lunch at a steakhouse in Puerto Madero, a popular waterfront district, I learned more about Alex’s late mother. Before her cancer diagnosis, she and Alex walked the Camino de Santiago. Their 30-day journey saw them trek from the French Alps to Cape Finisterre, a Spanish peninsula thought to be the “end of the world” in Roman times. That experience with his mother shaped his outlook on life. He learned to love those around him, explore far and wide, and leave no stone unturned.
Known for its breathtaking views, lively beaches, and samba-filled nightlife, Alex and I selected Rio de Janeiro for our Brazilian destination. Our morning began with a quick walk along the vibrant Copacabana beach, before venturing towards my year’s second of the Seven Wonders: Christ the Redeemer. Soaring at an imposing 98 feet, the statue has become synonymous with Rio. We took a train and then ascended 220 stairs to reach the summit of Mount Corcovado, where we joined a slew of tourists marveling at the masterpiece. Just as the statue does, we looked over the city and its lustrous waters, mesmerized by its charm. Later in the day, a cable car transported us to Sugarloaf Mountain, situated at the mouth of the Guanabara Bay. The sun glazed the water with a glossy coating, which contrasted miraculously to the hill’s shadows. After the 360-degree views, we headed into the Maracanã Stadium, where we bought last-minute tickets for the Copa América match between Bolivia and Peru. Wearing Peru jerseys, we cheered in unison with the Peruvians over the course of their 3-1 victory, electrified by the atmosphere. In our next stop, we wouldn’t be with Peruvians in Brazil. We would be with Peruvians in Peru.
I’m often not careful about checking weather forecasts, and it definitely would have helped to have done more research on Cusco’s weather. The city sits at 11,152 feet in the Peruvian Andes, and the freezing nightly temperatures weren’t compatible with my summer attire. Regardless of the climate, I was thrilled to be in the former capital of the Inca Empire. In fact, it would serve as the gateway into another one of the Seven Wonders: Machu Picchu. We took a 90-minute car ride on Peru’s winding roads, a two-hour train ride through plants and their vibrant flowers, and a 30-minute bus ride towards the Incan citadel. Eventually, nestled in the slopes, we reached Machu Picchu, which once housed 750 people in buildings made from granite. The masterful architecture, encompassed by lush greenery and a blue sky, resembled my envisioned utopia. Trees flourished across the mountains and lucid white clouds drifted over them. Alex and I visited three of the Seven Wonders in less than a month, each so different from the others. Generic beauty would not suffice, for it was their intrinsic dissimilarities that earned them a spot on that exclusive list. After our return to Cusco, which featured a delicious Alpaca carpaccio and a trip to Mama Africa, the most popular nightclub in the city, we headed to one of the world’s most mysterious countries, Cuba.
I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t miss a single of my 73 flights in 2019. Traveling to Cuba nearly ruined that impeccable statistic. Our first flight from Cusco to Lima was delayed two hours, indicating virtually no chance of us making our flight to Havana. Additionally, we flew with two separate airlines, which meant we needed to pick up our bags in Lima. Upon landing, we dashed to the Avianca check-in counter and were presented with two options: miss our flight or board the flight to Havana without our suitcases, and supposedly receive them the next day. We bolted through Lima’s passport control and sprinted across the terminal, becoming the last passengers to board. Technically my arrival was illegal per the U.S. Government, as President Trump had recently implemented a Cuban travel ban for pure tourism, but due to the immigration officials’ total disregard for American policy along with some suspect fees, I cleared customs. That said, there wasn’t much to declare as we had no suitcases anyway. Alex and I were running low on physical cash, but assuming we could withdraw money from ATMs later, we exhausted nearly everything we had on a taxi to the coastal Memories Miramar Hotel. Driving by 1950s classics, it was obvious that Cuba was stranded in the past. After the Cuban Revolution, Castro banned imports on foreign cars, resulting in the deep-freeze of Cuba’s automobile industry. The cars are only a microcosm for Cuba’s enigmatic society, everything from their shack-like airport to virtually nonexistent cell service paralleled the twentieth century.
A Puerto Rican friend of mine, Sergio, was competing in an ITF junior tournament in Havana that week, which was played on our hotel’s courts. After finding Sergio and explaining the situation, we borrowed some of his clothes to get us through the next day. Although Alex and I were upset with the horrendous customer support at the airport, we were relieved to receive our bags. Our next issue, perhaps even more significant, was that we had been putting all of the restaurant charges on our room, as we only had a scant cash supply and had yet to come across an ATM. We soon found out that American credit and debit cards are not accepted in Cuba, and Alex’s primary card wasn’t working either. The only positive was that I was able to access my Snapchat, which the government had prohibited, by spoofing my IP address to Saudi Arabia with VPN software. Despite this relief, the reality was we were in a communist country and unable to pay our outstanding bill. Although we knew it was improbable, we assured the hotel staff we would find a way to pay. Surprisingly, with one of Alex’s Australian travel cards, we were able to withdraw a small amount of cash from one of the ATMs. Knowing this wasn’t enough to pay our debt regardless, we irresponsibly spent the money on a tour around Havana.
In contrast to our time in Peru, Cuba embodied a dystopia. Surrounded by palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze, the colorful facades and sparkling vintage cars illustrated innocence. However, the sounds of its people’s suffering were silenced by the government’s oppressive political propaganda. Che Guevara’s face towered over the Plaza de la Revolución, internet censorship spanned across the country, and acts of protest often resulted in imprisonment. Our driver explained that the salary for minimum wage government workers was $40 a month. When we inquired about the communist government, he instantly became paranoid and agitated, demanding to know if we were hiding a recording device. Alex and I walked Old Havana’s streets cognizant of the fact that Cubans’ agony is concealed by fabricated visuals of joy. Once we returned to the hotel, the manager, who listened to our frustrating situation, decided to forgive our debt. It was nice to see Sergio, and support him in his matches, but I departed Cuba with sympathy for the people and animosity towards the government. Our next stop was Mexico City, where Alex did some sightseeing of his own and I spent some time with Santi, one of my best friends from the tennis academy. After a traditional Mexican breakfast, admiring the architectural ingenuity of Frida Kahlo’s home, and observing Jeff Koons’ steel balloons at the Museo Jumex, Alex and I flew to Miami.
Spending 4th of July with my friends was refreshing. I didn’t get to see them often and boating around Virginia Key provided us with some quality time. Alex met up with his Australian friend, Nelson, and after a few days of touring Florida, they departed for a trip across America. Because I had only one month before my freshman year at UM, I wasn’t sure if another exhilarating set of travels was in the cards. But as it turns out, it was.
I landed in Denmark on July 15, 2019, with no itinerary. The jet lag was particularly forceful, and I woke up at dawn and devised a walking tour through some of Copenhagen’s most distinguished landmarks: the bronze Little Mermaid, Amalienborg Palace, and New Harbor. In nearby Bastad, a Swedish resort town, there was an ATP 250 tournament. A friend from the University of Tampa Women’s Tennis team, Nico, lived in Bastad, and I used to chat with one of the doubles players, Treat Huey, when I was working at the ATP events. Nico said she and her friends would show me around, and I reached out to Treat to see if he could sign me in for a credential as a player’s guest. So after less than 24 hours in Denmark, I boarded a train to Sweden. I’ve been accustomed to traveling around metropolitan cities, but public transportation around Sweden’s countryside is far more complicated. It took the train, a seemingly never-ending bus ride, and a lengthy walk through dirt roads and grassy fields to get to my hotel. I felt like I was in a scene from Robin Hood, immersed in Sherwood Forest’s abundance of dark green leaves and rich brown bark, while inflating my lungs with some of Earth’s purest air. As I traveled to many of the world’s most prominent cities, I developed this notion that lesser-known places don’t attain the same level of beauty as the more recognized ones. I was far from the truth. Mother Nature’s purity was profound.
Treat confirmed he could sign me in as his guest, and eventually I arrived at the tournament. Situated adjacent to the North Sea, vendors sold traditional Scandinavian dishes, and locals and visitors shared glasses of wine while enjoying the matches. I met up with Nik, a Norwegian player from my time at the tennis academy. After lunch with Nik’s family, Harrison, an American player from the academy with Swedish heritage, welcomed me at his place so I wouldn’t have to stay in a hotel. Harrison’s home was nothing like I had ever seen before, it was a massive red barn with an immaculate tennis court in the back, and of course, had a panoramic view of Bastad.
The event’s lively atmosphere featured fans chanting in support of the Swedish wildcards, and then filling the neighboring bars after the day’s matches. I also had the pleasure of cheering on Treat during his first-round doubles win. The next evening, I helped prepare a delicious home-cooked meal with Harrison’s family, starring freshly caught crabs. Scandinavian countries consistently top the lists on happiness metrics. While sharing that meal in the barn and indulging myself with stimulating conversations on societal differences, I understood where that happiness originates. On my last night, I dined with Nico, the University of Tampa player, and her friends, before heading to the renowned Pepe’s Bodega for a night of American music amplified by Swedish charm. I ran into the #1 seed, Cristian Garín, who had also trained at Rafa’s academy, and met Eric, who formerly played tennis at ASA College in Miami. As one of the most engaging and hospitable people I know, Eric threw a massive afterparty at his house, and even insisted the taxi driver join us. Due to Sweden’s far north position in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun emerges only a few hours after midnight during summer. Just after 4:00 a.m., and as I was getting ready to leave, the sun had already begun to rise. Thankfully, the party wasn’t over for me, as I would soon be on a train to Copenhagen’s airport, bound for the clubbing capital of the world.
David, the German college student I had met in Palma a few months back with Kuhan, proposed a short trip to Ibiza, and it didn’t take too much convincing. Although Ibiza is known for its radiating energy, this Spanish island’s exceptional beauty didn’t go unnoticed. While dangling our feet over the sand, we watched as the sunset emitted shades of orange and red over the Balearic Sea. Our day trip to Formentera, Ibiza’s more peaceful neighbor, is best described as the calm before the storm. After an afternoon ambling along the pristine beaches, we stood in the center of Amnesia, one of the world’s most miraculous nightclubs. In Amnesia, David and I were deep into the heart of Elrow, the scintillating Barcelona-born music experience. The illusory environment produced inconceivable elements of the human imagination, thought to be sensorially unachievable. Mythical creatures spawned out of nowhere, cocktails of color bursted from above, and the music halted any perception of time. Elrow was an anomaly that served as a sanctuary for dreams that come to life. By 7:00 a.m., David and I were lost in the limbo of reality and fantasy. After going to the Ushuaia Beach Hotel for a performance by Ozuna, the award-winning reggaeton singer, and connecting with a mutual friend of mine from Rafa’s academy, I departed Ibiza.
Given that my graduating class at ASC only had 10 other students, building quality relationships with my peers came naturally. One of my most cherished relationships is the one I formed with César and his family, who are originally from Spain but spend the majority of the year in South Florida. I often felt isolated during my senior year in Naples, and in recognizing that, César would frequently invite me into his home in Delray Beach, where he lived while not at the academy. In those trips, I enjoyed home-cooked dinners while sharing my future aspirations with his family. They hosted me for my first ATP tournament internship, welcomed me for Thanksgiving, and during this set of travels, into their home in Luarca. César’s grandparents hail from this northwestern Spanish town, and his family often visits. Hidden on the coast, Luarca is a fishing port that prides itself on its festivals and authentic Asturian restaurants. After a trip to the nearby beach and water skiing around the Bay of Biscay, we drove down the country into the heart of Spain, Madrid. There, after another night out that ended in sunrise, I left for Nivelles, Belgium.
Before leaving for Mallorca in March, I rented a room from the Wojciks, one of the most passionate tennis families in South Florida. Shortly after my departure, they moved to Belgium to develop their own academy. Under their parents’ coaching, the girls of the family, Natalia and Monika, trained alongside players from Germany, Mexico, and Panama. Upon landing, I went to Nivelles and stayed with the academy’s players. During my stay there was a concurrent ITF Men’s tournament in Brussels that featured Adil, a friend from Rafa’s academy. Adil was one of India’s most successful juniors from the past decade and was in Belgium to pick up some ranking points. After hitting with him the best I could on the clay, we took time to sightsee around Brussels. Most notably, we visited the Atomium, which is a model of the iron crystal cell, only magnified 165 billion times. After indulging in artisan chocolates and waffles, I purchased a small travel bag which I would use for my final ambitious plan before starting college. I left my suitcases at the Wojicks’ house in Nivelles and packed some clothes at Adil’s Airbnb for a trip around Belgium’s neighbors: France, Luxembourg, Germany, and the Netherlands.
I couldn’t figure out the public transportation, so I found myself dashing through Brussels-South station, to make the 10:16 p.m. to Paris. This high-speed train soared at 186 miles per hour, and in only 82 minutes, I detrained in the French capital. My quintessential Parisian experience began with the Eiffel Tower, where after waiting in a lengthy line and climbing up 674 steps, I viewed the glamorous city and its charming suburbs. Then, I strolled down the Champs-Élysées on my way to the Louvre. Upon arrival, I was disappointed to find out tickets were all sold out. That said, African immigrants hovered around the site with pre-scanned tickets, as well as techniques to outsmart the system. I tried joining the wrong line and blending in with a tour group, and eventually my recycled ticket granted me entry. Being the largest repository of art in the known universe, visitors often spend days roving the museum and don’t see anywhere near its entirety. I budgeted about an hour. After racing up the chain of escalators, I couldn’t discern a deity, celebrity, or ordinary civilian when staring into Mona Lisa’s eyes. Given my limited knowledge of Babylonian history, I failed to decipher the Code of Hammurabi. In all fairness, I wasn’t a symbologist, and this wasn’t The Da Vinci Code. Between colluding with the ticket scalpers and being in the presence of ancient works of art, my time in the Louvre provided me with many fond memories.
The next day I traveled to Germany via an extended stop in Luxembourg City. I appreciated the city’s tranquility, and I found its fortifications and underground passages fascinating. After so many days of newness, I enjoyed roaming the city without an agenda and in no hurry. After hours promenading the quaint roads, I boarded a German-bound train to meet up with a friend from ASC, Max. I had visited Germany the year before and was thrown off a train and threatened with arrest for failing to properly validate my ticket, so I was relieved this ride went smoothly. Max and I linked up in Koblenz, in the western part of Germany, before heading north to Bonn. There, in a quiet neighborhood, we were hosted for a night by a friend of mine from Rafa’s academy. The following morning, Max and I made our way to the Rhine River and the twin-spired cathedral in Cologne, a city founded by the Romans in 38 BCE. We didn’t have much time to saunter the alleyways or study the Gothic architecture, as we needed to catch a train to my gap year’s final stop, the Netherlands. Despite the rain, Max and I spent our days relishing Amsterdam’s artistic heritage, elaborate canal system, and bustling nightlife. This exhilarating lifestyle of nonstop travel felt like a dream. But dreams often end in the blink of an eye, and this one was no exception. On August 14th, I woke up inside a college dorm.
College proves to be a substantial change for most students. The majority go from living at home under their parents’ supervision to a new level of freedom. In my situation, being bound to a campus for classes and housing, while surrounded by American teenagers, was my version of that substantial change. It had been over a year since I sat in a traditional learning environment, and even then I was studying in an international school made up of under 50 total students, where I was the only one in my graduating class who spoke English as a first language. Walking to my ENG 105 class with my backpack strapped around my shoulders felt strange and putting pen to paper for an in-class assignment was even stranger. Nevertheless, I eventually adjusted to the life of a college student. In the first few weeks I made new friends, joined the club tennis team, and reveled in the Miami nightlife scene. Rudy from Israel and Nico from Sweden even came to UM to visit me. College was everything I wished it would be.
Just as I was getting settled, Hurricane Dorian was forcefully moving towards Miami’s shore. In 2017, Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in Naples, and I didn’t have access to warm water or electricity for days. I wasn’t planning on sticking around for a re-enactment of those conditions. I was freaking out, at one point planning to go to Guatemala City, before settling on New York City. Flights were selling out faster than I could keep up, and every time I tried to purchase an available ticket, the sites would crash. I was in the middle of a marketing lecture, desperately trying to process whatever reservation I could for a night flight. At 4:12 p.m., a reservation went through for a 5:59 p.m. flight from MIA to JFK, via Atlanta. I was sitting in a lecture hall during rush hour, with no bag packed. I slammed my laptop and bolted out the back of the room. In my flip-flops, I sprinted through campus, where I arrived at my dorm exhausted and disorientated. I threw a bunch of clothes in a duffel bag and jumped in a Lyft, where my driver swerved around other vehicles to get me there as quickly as possible. Somehow, I made my two flights, and landed in JFK at 11:54 p.m. I stayed in Manhattan with Ty, one of the nation’s best juniors who I met back in 2017 at an ITF in Puerto Rico. My time in New York was an absolute blast. The US Open was in session, and Feliciano Lopez’s team welcomed Ty and me into his courtside box for his thrilling night match versus eventual finalist Daniil Medvedev. We passed through some of Manhattan’s neighborhoods to visit Vessel, an interactive sculpture comprising 154 flights of stairs. On Saturday night, I celebrated a friend from ASC’s 27th birthday in the eclectic Lower East Side. But when I woke up on Sunday morning, the hurricane had moved away from Miami, and so I booked a flight back home.
When I arrived at UM, I prepared myself for months without international trips. That said, UM had cancelled classes until Wednesday, and given my passion for travel, I took the extra couple of days to continue my long-weekend vacation. A couple of UM friends, Emma and Kennie, were staying in the Cayman Islands with another freshman, Sam, who lives there. While I was in the Newark airport, Sam, who I had not yet met, offered to host me, and so I booked a flight from Miami to Grand Cayman for later in the night. Given that my layover was short, I had another friend meet me in the Miami airport with my passport, printed boarding pass, and clean clothes. As it was, I went from one of the world’s most rambunctious cities to a laid-back island. Sam generously gave me her room, and the following morning she showed me, Kennie, and Emma around the island. We took a boat to Stingray City, where majestic rays glided through the crystalline waters to come and play with us. As we floated around the Caribbean Sea that day, Sam and I exchanged stories of our travels, where I learned about her time in Mafia Island and Bali, which are in Tanzania and Indonesia. I appreciated meeting someone who shared a passion for spontaneous adventures, and we remained friends after returning to Miami.
My experience as an UM student continued to get better and better. Whether it was jet skiing, chic cocktail parties at the Delano Hotel in South Beach, or simply hanging out with friends, I loved going to school in Miami. Despite all the ludicrous nights out, I made sure my grades were a priority, and accepted a position as Curation Chair for TEDxUMiami.
During fall break, I visited Joaquin in Guatemala City, where we participated in a chocolate making class, raced ATVs in Antigua Guatemala, and explored the dicey Zone 1. Instead of attending my Monday classes, I stopped for a 23-hour layover in Panama City. There, I boated through the Panama Canals to Monkey Island, where stealthy primates leaped along tree branches and snatched banana chunks from my fingertips. I witnessed the enthralling Miraflores Locks in action, which act like an aquatic elevator by controlling water levels underneath ships so they can traverse the Panama Canal. 26.7 million gallons of water spewed into the chamber that raised the ship up to the canal’s level, enabling it to move from the Pacific to the Atlantic. After appreciating the skyline and ambling the historical heart, Casco Viejo, I boarded a night flight back to Miami.
On Halloween, I had my hair sprayed green, face painted, and creepily laughed my way into a transformation of the Joker. During Homecoming, fireworks rocketed above UM’s Lake Osceola, glistening in the night sky. David left Europe for the first time to visit Miami, and the chronicle of our adventures continued at the W South Beach Hotel, where we were showered by blue and green lasers while listening to hip-hop and EDM. Nonetheless, I was eager for another trip by the time Thanksgiving neared.
I flew to Cancun on the Wednesday before break, where I allotted a day in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for my year’s fourth of the Seven Wonders: Chichén Itzá. Sacred Mayan pyramids, temples, and other stone structures resided in the complex, most notably El Castillo. In addition to its devotion to the deity Kukulkan, the pyramid served an astronomical purpose, as its 365 steps correlate to the number of days in the solar year. The ruins were extraordinary, but its history was the key to appreciating its brilliance. I then descended Ik Kil, a cenote, before ending my time in Mexico with strangers at the Congo Bar. On a typical Friday I would have my alarm set to make my 10:10 a.m. English class. But on this Friday, I would wake up for a travel day to Belize City.
One would think that I would be good at researching the best areas to stay, but unfortunately that’s not my strong suit. Tourists often fly to Belize City only to ferry to Caye Caulker, a small island known for its dazzling seascapes, diverse water sports, and pastel-colored B&Bs. That said, regardless of my hotel’s rundown neighborhood, I had an amazing time exploring Belize’s more remote gems. I began my day tubing through an intricate underground cave system, where visuals of the outside world vanished as the cave’s darkness intensified. After drifting through the river, I ziplined through the jungle canopy, astonished by its vegetation. As the day progressed, I meandered around jaguars and toucans at the Belize Zoo and marveled at the ancient Mayan city of Altun Ha. In the evening, Keith, a local I met, introduced me to the country’s spirited party culture. During a live performance of Garifuna music, which is influenced by African styles, musicians bounced their hands against their drums while singing in unison. The following day, I scuba dived in Caye Caulker, where I maneuvered around coral reefs and swam alongside fish. The sunset’s tranquility contrasted greatly with my next destination, El Salvador, which is infamous for its terrorizing gangs, extortion, and murders.
I was only in San Salvador for less than a day, and I didn’t feel comfortable walking around most of the streets. The architecture and monuments around the city center were impressive, and the bountiful plant life inside of the San Salvador Volcano’s crater was spectacular, but I felt like the city was on edge. Whether it was the country’s terrifying reputation, or the ominous mass security presence, I was relieved to leave. By way of a 54-minute flight, I landed in Managua, Nicaragua, which provided a far more pleasurable experience. On a little blue boat I glided by the islets of Granada, an archipelago of 365 tiny islands in Lake Nicaragua. Some of these islands are privately owned, with lavish homes encircled by water. Then, on the back of a horse-drawn carriage, I passed through Granada’s colonial architecture. At sunset, I witnessed another one of Mother Nature’s masterpieces when the Masaya Volcano’s bubbling lava glowed in the presence of an already impassioned sky. Later that night, an extravagant Christmas lighting display enlivened Managua. I spent Thanksgiving drifting along the Apoyo Lagoon, which lies in a crater that was formed approximately 23,000 years before my arrival. Paddleboarding inside a ring of leafy slopes, underneath a plethora of clouds, liberated me from lingering stress. The serenity was a fitting end to a remarkable trip.
I returned to Miami on Black Friday, where I needed to focus on looming final exams. That said, winter break was just around the corner and I still wasn’t sure which continent I would set off for. On December 1st, less than two weeks before the semester ended, I video called Kuhan’s brother, Lax, who had hosted me in Singapore the previous year. I called to send my birthday wishes, and although we hadn’t spoken in some time, Lax invited me to stay with him in Singapore after my exams. That spontaneous conversation resulted in designing a trip across Asia and Oceania, where I planned to visit my friends across those regions. In between library study sessions, I prepared visas, booked accommodations, and arranged other last-minute aspects of this upcoming expedition. Despite these tasks, I partook in irresponsible nights out, and took time to observe Art Basel’s duct-taped banana, where its installation instructions sold for $120,000. The day after my marketing final, I flew from Fort Lauderdale to Denver, which was the first of three legs as I made my way to the other side of the globe. Following that flight, another layover in San Francisco, and a subsequent seventeen hours and twenty-five minutes across the Pacific, I landed in Singapore’s Changi Airport.
The time difference resulted in a morning arrival, and so after sleeping during daylight hours, Lax lent me a Calvin Klein suit and an IWC watch. I was eager to indulge in the city’s opulence. We started at an upscale French restaurant, before heading to the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, which boasts the world’s largest rooftop infinity pool. Also located along the rooftop, CÉ LA VI is one of the most exquisite and internationally revered destinations in nightlife. Dark clouds hovered over us, and the rain only added to the magical ambience. Overlooking the city, Lax and I experienced the brilliance of Martin Solveig, the acclaimed French DJ, during that night’s performance. Kuhan, who was training in Barcelona at the time, was the only missing piece from that spectacular evening. We began the next day at the symbolic Merlion statue, which depicts a mythical creature with a lion’s head and fish’s body. At the misty Cloud Forest, which recreates tropical mountainous conditions, we were hit by gushes of air from a 115-foot indoor waterfall. And at the verdant Flower Dome, we observed plant life from different ecosystems across the globe. This trip was off to a sensational start.
Lax’s father owns a construction company that operates in numerous Southeast Asian countries, and it just so happened that he needed Lax to take supplies to Cambodia. Being the kind and considerate man he is, Lax’s father paid for our round-trip flights, as well as one night in a hotel so we could do some exploring. We handed off the metal parts in Phnom Penh, and the next morning we took a tuk-tuk to some of the city’s most visited landmarks. The somber S-21, the prison which chronicles the Cambodian genocide, gave us insight into a tragic period in the country’s history. The peaceful Royal Palace, home to hallowed buildings and lush gardens, served as a source of gratitude. The boisterous Central Market, which features pig intestines, chicken claws, and a variety of insects, presented us with another side of Cambodian culture. After returning to Singapore, I spent some time wandering the city’s retail heart, Orchard Road. I met Lax’s friend, Seb, who was saying his goodbyes as he was moving to Australia the next day. Before I parted ways with Lax, we sailed to Indonesia’s Batam Island for a day trip. After visiting a Buddhist temple, admiring the island’s beauty, and receiving a hot stone massage, I was off to Vietnam.
Even though I presented all the required documentation, it took an inordinate amount of time to obtain my visa. The process consisted of a Vietnamese immigration officer shouting at tourists to shut up, while individuals were named one by one to collect their visas. Eventually, I was called, and was excited to see Ho Chi Minh City. Mia, one of UM’s international students, lives in the city and showed me around. The day began with an ATM swallowing my debit card, and a frustrating conversation with the bank’s representative to get it back. Nevertheless, after some iced drinks and pastries, Mia and I entered the Independence Palace, which played an essential role during the Vietnam War. Not long after our palatial visit, I noticed a nearby tennis facility, where a crafty teaching coach demolished me in front of amused old men. The embarrassment subsided, and on the back of motorcycles, we rocketed through the city at night to the dynamic Bui Vien Street. As we walked along the street’s many bars and restaurants, it was clear that the energy was ubiquitous throughout the Vietnamese air. That energy was nowhere to be found in Brunei.
When given dates and one’s starting point, Skyscanner’s “Everywhere” option effectively generates a list of cost-effective destinations. Royal Brunei Airlines offered a non-stop flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital, on one of my desired dates at a reasonable price. At 11:30 p.m. on December 22nd, I landed in the oil-rich country, which is situated on the island of Borneo’s northern shore. Due to its remote location, little-known history, and tiny population, Brunei is predominantly uncharted by tourists. On my first morning, I flagged down a water taxi and toured Kampong Ayer, the world’s largest floating village, which houses over 13,000 residents. As I boated along the Brunei River, I was fascinated with the network of wooden walkways, which connected stilted shops, schools, and mosques.
One of the greatest honors throughout my travels was being welcomed into countless holy places of worship across the globe. Given that I don’t strictly follow any particular religion, my experience resembled that of the boy in Life of Pi, who believed in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Although different faiths tell different versions of history, I learned that their teachings of gratitude and compassion are all closely related. Like Pi, whether I was in a temple, church, or mosque, I often ruminated on the nature of existence, recognizing the beautiful values of all religions. Inside of the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, where Italian marble pillars, English crystal chandeliers, and intricate Saudi Arabian carpets surrounded me, I went into a state of reflection while kneeling alongside worshipers. Later in the day, I stood in awe of the royal family’s treasures at the Royal Regalia Museum, which exhibits gold relics, a gigantic ceremonial chariot, and a myriad of unique gifts from world leaders. Passing through the tropics the next day, I witnessed the captivating oil extraction process on my way to Miri, Malaysia. There, Canada Hill offered a panorama over the city and its bordering South China Sea.
After my Malaysian day trip, I woke up for another holiday experience in a foreign country, Christmas in Brunei. However, there were no extravagant decorations nor public singings of carols, as celebrating Christmas “excessively and openly” is punishable by prison in this Islamic country. My morning started at the barber, where I offered under $4.50 for a deluxe haircut, opposed to the standard option of under $2.25. With a fresh cut and clean shave, I headed to the airport. Although my Christmas spirit was hampered by Brunei’s underwhelming festive environment, witnessing an in-flight marriage proposal between two elated Australian travelers elevated my mood.
Manu, the Filipino ASC alum with whom I vacationed in January, invited me to join his family for his birthday trip in Palawan, an archipelagic province of the Philippines. Specifically, we would stay in El Nido, where colossal limestone cliffs and marvelous coral reefs teem with flora and fauna. Given that Manu’s flight arrived the following afternoon, I spent the hours before his arrival exploring Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa. I didn’t have any concrete plans, and so I stopped when I stumbled upon a group of boys playing basketball. Gian, who was nine years old, welcomed me onto the court to shoot around with him. What he lacked in size, he made up for with agility and tenacity. After playing, Gian, his friends, and a baby accompanied me around the coastal city in a tricycle taxi. Being financially disadvantaged, Gian didn’t have the means to partake in certain activities. The smile on his face and the excitement in his voice when I took him ziplining was one of the highlights of the entire trip. I invited the boys for lunch and being surrounded by their genuine positivity was an honor. That night, with Manu and his family, I made the draining 171-mile van ride through Palawan’s tortuous roads to El Nido.
The clock struck 12, marking the start of December 27th. Manu, aka the “Black Dragon,” was 20. Anticipating his parents would disapprove of a night out, we discreetly slipped out of our hotel to celebrate at one of the town’s spirited bars. In the beginning of January we danced through the night on a tropical island in the Caribbean. In the end of December, we were once again dancing on a tropical island, but on the other side of the globe. Joined by his sister, family friend, and a multitude of affable tourists, we sipped mixed drinks and danced to 2019’s hit songs. I woke up and chugged beer before 9:00 am, and our night was crazy enough that it didn’t feel nearly as strange as it should have felt.
The morning’s boat tour began with an idyllic ride through El Nido’s breathtaking cliffs, which reminded me of Thailand’s stunning scenery in The Hangover Part II. In parallel with the Wolf Pack’s experience in the movie, I too had a significant dilemma. On our first stop, close to one of the islets, I failed to consider the merciless currents I would encounter while swimming towards the sand. Additionally, I incorrectly assumed that enhanced phone technology and my LifeProof case, albeit worn, would protect my iPhone X in the case of submergence. Those mistakes would prove costly. Minutes after reaching land, neon green streaked over my phone’s newly transformed black wallpaper. Over 9,500 miles from home, I lost my only method of communication, where the nearest Apple Store was a boat and plane ride away. In some ways it was a blessing in disguise, as the predicament suspended impulses for phone use. Whether I was observing the limestone forests that protrude from the cliffs, sharing cherished memories with Manu and his family over dinners, or canoeing around a luminous lagoon, I was living in the moment. Despite the obvious logistical challenges of flying out of the Philippines with no phone, everything worked out in the end. Manu’s parents helped me arrange for an overnight transfer back to Puerto Princesa’s airport, a sympathetic traveler lent me his phone to pull up my visa, and I had plenty of time to spare during my Manila layover. At 11:35 p.m. on Sunday, December 29th, my 73rd and final flight of 2019 landed in Melbourne, Australia.
Before leaving El Nido, I used Manu’s phone to message Lax’s friend Seb, who had moved to Melbourne right after we met in Singapore, and sent him a time, date, and address to meet me. Miraculously, it worked, and in the morning he picked me up outside my hotel for a trip to Westfield Southland, one of Australia’s most prominent malls. Upon examination, the Apple Store representative informed us my phone had seawater lodged inside of it and was damaged beyond repair. So at the nearby Officeworks, I purchased a Rose Gold iPhone 6s to get me through my time in Oceania. I thanked Seb for his thoughtfulness and spent a day sightseeing around the city. Notorious for having “four seasons in a day,” predicting Melbourne’s debilitating weather was a futile task. Following my visit to the Australian Open’s Melbourne Park, I dragged myself through scorching 108-degree weather in search of a taxi and water. Only a few hours later, while admiring street art in the Central Business District, a slew of gray clouds infiltrated the blue sky. Those clouds unleashed rain over the city, and the evening saw a 43-degree temperature drop from the day’s high. I woke up on New Year’s Eve to find that the clouds dissipated, allowing the sun to shine brightly. After touring the enormous Melbourne Cricket Ground and sauntering St Kilda beach’s palm-lined boardwalk, I joined Seb and his parents for dinner at their home. During my last meal of the decade, Seb’s father offered a toast to new friendships. That toast was especially fitting, as the birth of precious relationships became an omnipresent theme in my year. Minutes to January 1st, Seb and I frantically maneuvered through dense foot traffic alongside the Yarra River, making it to a secluded spot away from the mass of spectators. As the clock struck 12, fireworks illuminated the Melbourne sky. Six continents and 46 countries later, my 2019 was over.
In reflecting over a year that enriched so many aspects of my life, I spent lots of time searching for a message to share that would do it justice. The more I searched, the more apparent it became. While traveling across the globe, I was clueless as to where I would plan my next adventure, or as to when the next time a stranger would walk into my life. Even though constantly being without a plan as a 19-year-old presented its challenges, choosing to live my life on the paths of uncertainty was the best decision I’ve ever made. Whether I was traversing Mozambique with two hitchhikers, ascending a cliff in Jordan with an Australian, or playing basketball in the Philippines with a nine-year-old, it’s the relationships I’ve cultivated that paved the way for my personal growth. With no obligation to do so, people representing all walks of life welcomed me with open arms into their countries, cities, and homes, expecting nothing in return. That blessing was a result of deciding on the unknown, and then fully embracing the instances of generosity, kindness, and empathy that were bestowed upon me. Not everyone can travel freely, but all people have the ability to open their hearts to the world. By doing so, the world and its billions of people will open their hearts right back.
Cameron Mofid is an American entrepreneur and former tennis player. He competed on the ITF Junior Tour, where he held a world ranking. He founded the charitable platform Legends United at 17 years old, and he was later recruited to develop Nick Kyrgios’ NK Foundation at professional tennis tournaments across the world.
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