We are a couple of thousands of feet above the ground. In awe, I witness an intimidating but beautiful thunderstorm, and I repeatedly wait for the next lightning to strike to briefly illuminate the dark sky, so I can catch a glimpse of the Himalaya Mountains. The turbulences are much heavier than I have ever experienced them before, and as I hear the voice of the pilot through the speakers, I already expect to hear some bad news. The clouds are obstructing his view, and due to the bad weather conditions we cannot land, he says, subsequently letting us know that there will be a delay. At least I can continue watching nature tell its dramatic story in the sky on this special night, the night in which I seek to return to my country of origin.
So far, in various destinations of this around the world trip I was confronted with different chapters of my past life, be it the night when I reunited with Chris and his mom in Alexandria who used to be my neighbours when I was seven years old, meeting my former band mate Daniel in Hollywood, who was part of our band when I was twenty years old, or seeing several of my relatives again in the United States, in Australia and in UAE, all of whom I had seen the last time in Pakistan, when I was eleven years old. However, nowhere will the feeling of nostalgia be stronger than in Pakistan.
Approximately half an hour passes until the pilot gives us an update. If the stormy weather won't allow us to land, he explains, we will run out of fuel. Therefore, we may have to land in Lahore first. Wherever we land, as long as we land, that would be great, I begin to think. At least he has not told us to say our final prayers. What a bad timing it would be to die, moments before reaching the most important destination of the biggest journey in my life. There are literally hundreds of relatives in Pakistan that I am looking forward to meet, many of which I haven't seen since 1996, and many of which I yet have to meet, be it in Lahore or in Islamabad, and no matter where this plane will land in the end, I will have relatives waiting for me. Nevertheless I hope to land in Islamabad, because my aunt and cousins are waiting for me at the airport. At least the storm seems to be over, I notice moments before the pilot makes one final announcement. We are about to land in Islamabad.
With tears of joy and open arms my aunt welcomes me back. On our way to their house in Rawalpindi I feel like an eleven-year-old kid again talking about all the moments we shared in 1996. Finally, we reach the house where I spent most of the time as a kid in Pakistan. "Thank God, it's still standing", says my aunt, explaining to me that the house has incurred a lot, from several burglaries to floods. "You know that in Pakistan the water is scarce. One day I was praying to God that we need water. My prayers came true, our house was flooded", she says jokingly, "And then we prayed even more often to God to make the water go away again!", she adds laughing. The water scarcity has been an issue between India and Pakistan since the secession of the latter. The exceptional population growth made matters only worse, as much more water needed to be shared in a comparably short amount of time. When the state Pakistan was created in 1947, less than 40 million people were living in the country. Today, in 2010, Pakistan's population is 180 million, and that is only the official number.
It is almost a shame that I don't plan to explore Pakistan's incredible natural assets. But it would be a bigger shame not to try and meet as many of my relatives as possible, my one and only goal here, even if I know that one week may not be enough to see all of them. So, on the following night many relatives gather in my aunt’s house, and we wait for the electricity to come back on. Power outage is another common issue here. Even the first time when I came to Pakistan, the electricity kept going on and off on a daily basis. Today is no different, and somehow, the darkness in the room is not disturbing me, but much rather has a nostalgic effect on me. Soon, the brothers of my mom, as well as their wives and kids arrive. For an hour or so we sit in the dark and have an emotional and elaborate conversation, while highly anticipating the electricity to come back on, so we get to see each other's faces clearly after nearly one and a half decades. As the lights finally go on, my relatives and I finally really get to see each other. My uncle who has been sitting beside me all the time, is now analyzing my face, probably noticing how much I resemble his sister, and begins to smile.
Nothing in this around the world trip made me feel more nervous than the thought of this moment right now. It feels so weird to me being halfway through flying around the world, and now to suddenly find myself surrounded by so many people that care for me so much. Because I am not used to it, at first it is hard to cope with all the love and warmth that I receive from everybody. Not only am I overwhelmed by all they say to me and do for me, but at the same time I am fascinated by all the similarities that I notice between my relatives and myself even after all those years, be it the body language or the way of talking, as well as our similarities in taste. However, it is not only my relatives who remind me of so many childhood memories in Pakistan. Even the most arbitrary objects, smells or sounds are sources of nostalgia, be it the courtyard in the middle of the house or traditional dishes like Paan, one of my favourite dishes in Pakistan, which consists of a belet leave containing dry pieces of areca nut and a variety of sweet flavours that are characteristic for the Indian subcontinent. Even the smelly gullies on the streets make me smile. The feel of nostalgia gets even stronger as I spot all the animals that my uncle is keeping, most notably the lambs and the sheep, and of course everybody in the room knows this story revolving around this one sheep and myself, the one sheep that I considered my friend, when I was in Pakistan as a child. Day in and day out I kept feeding him and imitated the sounds he made. Soon, however, I was told that my friend would be slaughtered for the Eid festivities. "We cannot allow this injustice to happen!", I said to my younger cousin Ali on the night before Eid. Ali, the same cousin who came with me when I reunited with Chris in Alexandria a couple of weeks ago, listened to me carefully and agreed that we needed to do something. Therefore, we secretly conspired against the rest of the family to initiate a rescue operation for the sheep that was still tied to a rope downstairs in the courtyard. So, we quickly rushed to the kitchen, grabbed a knife, tiptoed our way down to the sheep, cut the rope, opened the gate and helped him to escape. Back in our room, we felt relief and were ready to go to sleep. It didn't take long, however, until my brother and some older cousins came to ask us, what we had done with the sheep. They didn't buy us acting like we had no idea, because we did not execute our plan very well and even left the knife in the courtyard. An hour later they found my friend on the streets. The next night they slaughtered my friend and in the evening I ate him. At least he did taste really good.
As planned, the next days I stay busy meeting many of my relatives in Pindi and Islamabad. On one day, some of my closest relatives take me to Murree, a nearby mountain resort town. While driving up the mountain, the girls in the back are singing along a trendy Pakistani song that is playing through the louderspeakers, and they do so loudly and a little bit too enthusiastically. A beautiful moment. Why can we never see moments like these in our news media reports on Pakistan? Apparently, people like my uncle Asif will never be newsworthy. He is too funny and spreads too much positive energy for a report on Pakistan. He treats his wife and kids too well and jokes with them way too much to be of interest for the bigger news media outlets in the West. And there is no chance that I would ever get to see my female cousins from Pakistan in Western news media reports either, because they don't look repressed and depressed at all, they just are not suitable for a report on girls in Pakistan. Some of them are not even wearing a headscarf. And those who do, they also smile and look happy. My cynical thoughts quickly fade away, as we arrive in Murree, where we spend a magnificent day that only strengthens my desire even more to soon return to Pakistan.
Because I am running out of time, on the following day, a cousin of mine and I prepare to go to Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan. As we reach the bus station, my cousin and I see a group of protesters. Maybe this is the moment when I can report on something what makes people angry and sad, something newsworthy. My cousin looks at me with concern and is about to say something, but before he can do so, I say: “I know.”, and we distance ourselves from the protesters. Inside the bus on our way to Lahore, I start to feel a little bit sick. The closer we get to our destination, the less I can bear the climate. Once we arrive, I am feeling really sick to my stomach. My cousin is telling me a story while we walk in the streets of Lahore, close to the border to India, but I cannot understand anything he says because I am too distracted trying not to vomit. In the middle of the street I interrupt him and ask him to wait a minute, he turns around and looks at me as I put a painful effort in letting my lunch out, till I remember that I had barely eaten anything today. “God, why do I always feel sicker and sicker, the closer I get to India?”, I say jokingly, alluding to the animosities between India and Pakistan. It is a shame that I never really got to see the stunning beauty of the country, because as a child I had a hard time in India indeed. For the most part I was puking or sleeping. Otherwise I only have vague memories such as walking down a dirty street, whose concrete was covered by thousands of flies. Every reluctant step that I took led to the death of many dozens of flies, and I only started walking faster once deformed beggars started approaching me, touching me and asking me for money. One good moment that I do remember in India is when my parents left me alone in the hotel to meet friends. Eight year old kids get bored very easily, so I looked at the menu, which was in English. I decided to call the staff and order a variety of things. When my parents came back and saw the bill they had to pay, my dad was rather amused, realizing that I could communicate with others in English and take care of myself already.
In Lahore, while hanging out with some of the boys in a shisha bar, I am once again beind reminded of the very simple realities of everyday life in Pakistan that many people in Europe unfortunately hardly perceive. It prompts me to discuss this with my cousins, who are curious to know how we in the West perceive Pakistan. In Europe, usually, when we hear or see something about Pakistan in the news, I explain to them pretty straightforward, it is in the context of terrorism, repression, whatever makes people angry or sad. You don't see the loving and caring husbands and fathers, you don't get to see people smiling, you almost get the impression that women wearing headscarves constantly look depressed, that women who live a traditional lifestyle, or women who are religious, are unhappy. It is important to report the issues in every country, but it is a problem when you are made believe that the rare, extreme and negative cases are common, and the common, normal and positive cases are rare.
We are back in Rawalpindi, watching some kids playing in the cemetery. Playgrounds are not as common here as in Germany. Cemeteries are. Looking back at the last days, it has been indescribable to see my relatives again, but before I fly to the next destination, I need to visit three of my closest relatives, even if I cannot see them. My cousin, who also went to Lahore with me, helps me to find the three graves. It takes a while, but eventually we find the graves of my father's parents, who passed away a few years ago. Remembering their unconditional love, I say some prayers, before looking for the third grave, the grave of a person who was a role model to many, an educated woman full of wisdom, always soft-spoken, and yet a great and respected authority figure. She was the woman who seemed to hold the entire family together. And she always said „Forgiveness is the best form of vengeance”. Not for any reason was she called the "Gandhi" of our family. Eventually, we find the third grave, where my cousin again helps me to recite the prayers correctly. Six months ago, as I was in the middle of my preparations for the around the world trip, my grandmother from my mother’s side was ready to leave this world. "She asked for you in her deathbed", my mom told me. Now I stand here, too late, looking at her grave, then looking at my necklace with the Quranic verses that my mother gave to me as some kind of protection on the night before everything changed and intuitively decide to leave it here.
"You see? I can still do it!", says my grandfather with a big smile in his face. He is the last part of my grandparents that is still alive, and indeed, he is still very fit for his age, I realize after he takes the badminton bat from my little cousin and challenges me to a match. As I prepare for my next flight, cousins, uncles and aunts of course ask me to return very soon, and I tell my relatives in Pindi the same thing that I told my relatives in Lahore. It will not take another 14 years for me to return to Pakistan. Maybe not even 14 months. And so I make the promise to return to Pakistan in 2011, to stay much longer than this time, and who knows, maybe, by making this promise, I might have just laid the foundations for a second travel adventure. But first I should focus on flying around the world, because the journey is not quite over yet, and coming up next is the country, of which I know the least.
The days in China, which I had expected to be the most challenging ones on this around the world trip, are now behind me. Everything should be so much easier here, in the United Arabic Emirates. Not only am I back in the Islamic world and hence in a culture that is much more familiar to me, not only are there many fellow Pakistani people who live here, but this is again one of those destinations, where I have relatives waiting for me. Getting to my relatives' place should be easy, I conclude once I check the metro map, which is a big relief after trying to deal with an ultra complicated looking metro map of Beijing. Here, you only have one line, and I know exactly where to get off and where to go to find my cousin's place. All I need to do before entering the metro is to withdraw some money. Easy!
"Transaction failed" - What? Why? I insert the card again, try it a second time, and again it does not work. It is impossible that I spent all my money. The guys who work here do not seem really enthusiastic about helping me with my problem, and don't even seem to know what to do about it, so apparently I have to figure this out by myself. The maestro card that I use has worked in every country so far, no problems in the US, in Australia, Malaysia and not even in China. So, why is it not working here in Dubai? I look at the card, and I am shaking my head thinking about the fact that my entire trip around the world depends on a small, red-coloured piece of plastic with a chip.
Not knowing what to do after unsuccessfully trying to withdraw money a third and a fourth time, I sit down on a bench, eat some Oreo cookies and analyze my current situation. It doesn't even make any sense to look for an internet café to contact my relatives, because I have no cash to pay for that either. Now I really need a miracle to happen. Maybe the only thing that can help me in this futile situation is divine intervention, I begin to fantasize while reading some Quranic verses of the book that my brother gave me. Maybe, if I just believe in it, no matter how crazy it sounds, maybe, just maybe, there will be this magical moment, when I ask God for help, then walk over to the ATM and suddenly it just starts working and everything will be fine. So, after forgetting everything around me and only focusing on God and myself for a while, I get up and try to withdraw money again. Of course, it does not work. What a stupid thought, so many people pray five times a day and get nothing but war, hunger, pain and agony, and I expect that reading a few verses is supposed to change anything about my little problem with that freaking ATM here? So much for "divine intervention". Out of frustration and because I don't know what else to do, I do the exact same thing that I have done five times already, when for whatever reason cash comes out of the machine. I don't understand why, but decide not to ask too many questions, just head to the metro station and not much later reach my relatives' place, where I am being welcomed with a delicious dinner, nice talks and a comfortable bed.
"Do you know why nobody is driving on that lane over there?", my cousin asks me while showing me around in Dubai. He is right, the sixth lane is not even being used. "It is only reserved for the Sheikhs", he explains. Talk about lavish. This reminds me of a joke dealing with the clichee of super rich Arabs, which pretty much sums up my very first impressions of Dubai: The son of a Sheikh is in Europe for the first time to study. "How do you like it?", the rich Arab asks his son on the phone, who then confesses that he feels a little bit uncomfortable driving around with a Ferrari, because all the other students come by train. "No problem, I will take care of this!", says the Sheikh and buys his son a train.
"Bigger is better", seems to be the motto here in Dubai, and I am not only talking about Dubai Mall, the world's biggest mall, which - among other things - features an underwater zoo and a ski resort with a size of over 20000 square meters. Whatever I do, wherever I go here in Dubai, everything is just so much bigger than I had expected it to be, the mall, the buildings, as well as the pizza that my cousin orders for us. But there is nothing that I underestimated more than the artificial Palm Islands.
When I was exploring the city all by myself earlier today, I decided to take a taxi to check out the palm-shaped islands. "Where do you want to get off?", the driver asked me. - "The Palm Islands." - "Which islands, there are three, Jumeirah, Deira or Jebel Ali?" - I had no idea that there are several of them, so I just said: "Whatever, the first one". Soon I started to get a little bit impatient, because the ride seemed endless and still I just couldn't spot those artificial islands. "When will we arrive?", I asked. - "Where do you want to get off?" - "You already asked me that. I told you, the first of those islands that you named", I said a little bit annoyed, because I felt like he was trying to rip me off. - "But where in Palm Jumeirah?" - "Anywhere, I don't know. How long does it take? I still cannot see them." - "We are already in Palm Jumeirah", he replied and I looked at him confused; because all I saw while looking out of the window were busy streets. "But I want to go to the islands!", I reiterate. "We are driving ON those islands right now!" - "Oh..." - Finally, I understood how big Palm Jumeirah is and that you cannot look out of the window of a car and spot the island's shape of a palm just like that.
In recent years, Dubai has become very popular among tourists. I still don't know anything about Dubai, but the pictures that I checked were really impressive and so unlike what I would have expected from a small gulf state that for the most part only consists of deserts. While exploring Dubai on my own, I quickly concluded that the most eye-catching buildings are usually hotels, most notably the Atlantis Hotel and Burj Al-Arab, one of the most luxurious hotels in the world and one of the very few seven star hotels in the world, which I have a closer look at while having a walk on Jumeirah beach.
In Dubai, as I had already heard, things are more liberal than it is usually the case in the Arab world. Apart from nightclubs and bars, which I have decided not even to check out here in Dubai, you notice the state's more liberal policies especially at the beaches and in the malls. I remember this sign that I saw in front of the entrance of Dubai Mall, reminding visitors to dress respectfully, only seconds before a girl with a short, pink minidress walked out. "To me, living in the US seems easier for a Muslim", my relative who moved from the New York to Dubai told me last night. "Here you hear the Azhans from the loudspeakers of the mosques, you see all these signs in Arabic, and yes people pray, but practicing our religion in New York still seemed easier to me", he said. As I walk in the streets of Dubai, I am impressed by all the luxury that is surrounding me on the one hand, but at the same time I just feel like this place might be more appealing to the super rich people, to the celebrities and models. With that said, there are certain things I still want to see and do here in Dubai, and much like in the previous countries, there are moments that I seek to create here, with which I will forever associate this place. So what will these moments look like?
Already while sitting inside the airplane, before landing in Dubai, maybe a thousand feet above, I saw this gigantic skyscraper, this one place I have been looking forward to visit here in Dubai the most, a building that only opened a few months ago, a building that is 828 meters tall, a building that is now officially known as the tallest structure on the planet. Ten years ago, in 2000, when I was standing on top of the World Trade Center, the twin towers were still known as the tallest structures in the world. And now, in 2010, the fastest elevator in the world takes me to the skydeck of the tallest building in the world of today, this time offering a view on an Arab cityscape, whose components look like toys from up here. When looking farther, you can see the wide desert landscape, reminding me of my next and final activity here in Dubai.
The locals in the desert must be wondering what all those tourists from the West find so interesting about a place that is so unbearably hot and dry, where there is nothing to see but sand. But it's not only Westerners, who are enjoying the adventurous jeep ride, the views on the desert landscape, and who are looking forward to ride a camel. Inside the jeep I meet Sangita from Malawi and her soon to be father in law, who are part of the group that has booked the desert safari. As we arrive, the locals approach us, waiting for us to sell their souvenirs, and I assume that the most annoying part of the tour is about to begin. I have heard so many times that the Arabs in the desert can be way too pushy and stubborn and tend to rip people off. To my surprise, at least here in the desert of Dubai it is quite on the contrary, and the locals are pretty reserve and friendly.
Sangita, her soon to be father in law and I hang out together for the most part, having dinner and being entertained by the show in the desert that includes a belly dancer and light shows with traditional Arab music, in which traditional items such as Arab swords are being used in an artistic way. Some travellers are having a good time trying to ride a camel especially those coming from the Western world, as they rarely get to see these creatures. It reminds me of how I was riding on a camel once when I was a child. It was in 1996, the last time when I was in my country of origin, in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. A long train ride took us to the coastal city of Karachi, where we spent a lot of time at the beach. I have to chuckle, as I remember another moment in Karachi, when as I child I went to my brother and my mom, who were expecting me just to collect some shells. "Look what I have found!", I said excited, and my brother quickly kicked that scorpio that I was holding in my hand quickly away while both were scolding me. As we are driving back late at night, I continue reminiscing about many different moments that I had experienced in Pakistan when I was a kid, especially the moments with many of my relatives, whom I haven't seen ever since. How will it be now that I am grown up? I am less than 24 hours away to confront my past. Nothing on this around the world trip makes me more nervous than the upcoming destination, which to me is not just a travel destination. This will be beyond sightseeing, this is going to be the most personal part of the world trip, returning to my country of origin and reuniting with my countless relatives that I haven't seen since I was a child.
"I'm sorry, do you speak English?". It must be the tenth time that I ask a local passerby this question, with the same result: Nobody understands me. All the confidence that has been growing, especially after the last few days in Malaysia, when I was all by myself, is now gone. Even the people who work at the Beijing Capital Airport did not understand me, but at least in airports you usually find other foreigners who speak English, like that Canadian couple that helped me to get to a station called Xidan. From there, the couple had to go another direction. "Yes, I will be fine from here", I said, not wanting to disturb them. And now here I am, by myself, lost somewhere in China's capital, in the midst of the journey of my life, where I am supposed to find myself, and I cannot even find a damn hostel!
"Excuse me, do you speak English?", I ask the next person, and he keeps walking. As I see kids coming back from school I realize that it is about to get dark. A tricycle driver waves at me. For a while I ignore him, because I am sure that he is going to overcharge me. Soon I realize that I don't have any alternatives. The taxi drivers won't understand me either and probably charge me much more. Even if the tricycle driver will greedily ask me for a couple of Euros, at least I have the chance to find a hostel or a place where people can speak English.
So, as I sit down on the tricycle, I try to explain to him what a hostel is. Of course he doesn't understand one word. But he continues driving, until we end up in a narrow alley, where I don't see anything that looks like a hostel or hotel. Instead, I see his friends waiting. The driver then asks me for 6000 Yen. "What? Are you crazy?" - That's like 50 Euro. Now I get angry and tell them that they can forget about it and signalize that I am ready to fight. The local tricycle drivers try to calm me down and are apparently amused. In the end they are fine with 200 Yen, on which I agree, because I am too exhausted, hungry and tired to discuss.
Back on the main street I uncomfortably try to sit down on my 25 kilogram luggage. It is already dark. In Kuala Lumpur, I found the hostel where I wanted to stay so easily. I didn't expect it to be a big deal here in Beijing either. The hostel where I was planning to stay here in Beijing is very close to the Forbidden City. Stupid me, I had no idea that the Forbidden City is that big, occupying 720000 square meters. Well, too late, I should better think about what to do now.
From the distance I see a Chinese man wearing a suit appearing out of nowhere. I have asked people here a dozen times now if they speak English, so I don't even bother to ask him. But the man keeps walking into my direction and keeps looking at me. As soon as he is close enough, he asks me in English: "Where are you going?" - "I need a hostel", I reply. The man immediately stops a taxi, asks me to get inside, enters the taxi as well and gives the driver some instructions. "What is your name?" - "Shahab, and yours?" - "Li Weng". After a couple of minutes we reach the Tiananmen Square, where we get off. Li Weng pays the taxi driver and carries my luggage until we reach a hostel. He goes inside with me, makes sure that I have checked in, gets a piece of paper and a pen, writes down his contact details and says: "If you need anything, call me" and disappears as fast as he came.
Very briefly I enter the dorm room that I have booked to drop my luggage. Here I see a Brazilian guy. "Hey, how are you doing?", I ask, but apparently, the Brazilian doesn't speak any English. Never mind, I get used to people not understanding me. Back at the reception, I order something to eat. While waiting to have dinner, I take a look around in what is only the second hostel where I am staying. How convenient these hostels are for travellers, I realize especially while looking at a wall that is filled with a lot of useful information, most notably a variety of tour offers. On each day of the week there is a different tour organized by this hostel. On one poster I see the one sight that is the main reason why I have come to China. It says "Simatai". The tour will begin tomorrow morning at five. Fortunately, at this hour I am still able to book the tour, although it is already past midnight.
Once I finish my dinner, I make my way to the bathroom, where I accidentally catch a couple making out in the shower. As they get out, they simply smile at me and keep walking. People in hostels seem pretty relaxed and easy-going, I begin to think and head to the terrace, where I see a group of travellers sitting on a table and drinking. An American girl called Rose asks me to join them, which I gladly do. After briefly introducing myself, I grab a beer and stay quiet for the most part, curiously listening to the stories that some of the experienced travellers around me are sharing, and realizing how much I still have to learn. I have a feeling that I can especially learn from Rose, who has been living in Beijing for a while and can actually speak Chinese, breaking the clichee of Americans not knowing anything about the rest of the world. There is very little I know about the Chinese language, but what I know, I always found fascinating, such as the fact that one word can have up to five different meanings depending on your intonation, since Chinese is a tonal language. "In our language, the word 'niga' means 'you' in many contexts. It's a word we use all the time", a Korean traveller explains to us, once we talk about cultural misunderstandings. "Just imagine what can happen when a group of Korean people is hanging out with a group of black people for too long", another traveller says, causing laughter. Not much later a guy from Nepal joins us to share his ideological views and his perception of the Western world, explaining how for people like him it is such a natural thing to follow a leader, to obey authority. Individualist ideals and striving for freedom, in his eyes, is something completely absurd.
It feels good and refreshing to be in this environment, where the most differing personalities can come together and yet have this common interest of travelling. I don't know when the last time was when I was surrounded by so many people who are so open-minded about other cultures, languages and mentalities, but I am pretty sure that this is not my last time in a hostel. Although I wish I could stay longer with the group, I am tired and will only have a few hours of sleep before the tour will start, where for the first time in my life I will get to witness one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
The next morning we have a three hour ride that takes us to one of the places that I have been anticipating the most on this around the world trip. It is too early for most of us, especially for the guy who is asleep sitting in front of me. His head repeatedly and loudly bumps into the window while we drive, but he is so tired, not only doesn't he seem to care, but he doesn't even wake up, causing amusement and laughter among some passengers in the bus. Soon thereafter we stand in front of the wall, which much like many other worlds on this planet, was built out of fear, in this case the fear of various invaders throughout Chinese history, most notably the fear of a Mongol invasion. This fear was apparently so big that the wall had ultimately reached an unbelievable overall size of over 20000 kilometres, making it the longest man-made structure in the world. The first hike of my travel adventures takes place on the Great Wall of China.
Unlike Badaling, the most touristy section of the Great Wall, there are not many people in Simatai. Many parts of the wall here have not been restored and still date back from times when everybody was scared of the Mongol Empire and even earlier times. It doesn't take more than an hour until we reach those parts of the wall that are either steep, heavily damaged or both, all of which we manage to overcome. Whenever we reach the next watchtower, often situated on the peaks, the view reminds us of the incredible length of the wall. Distracted by a local farmer who is showing me around for a while, I soon notice that I cannot see anyone from my group. "Péngyǒu, zǒu ba!", the farmer says with a desparate smile. He taught me earlier that this means "let's go, my friend", but I don't want to get lost again. The only other person that I see is this guy carrying a red bag and wearing a black shirt, but I haven't seen him in the bus. Nevertheless I start to have a talk with him. The traveller from Australia, whose name is Paul, tells me that he doesn't know where his group is either. Since we are both on the same boat, we decide to hike together and climb up the next watchtower of the wall.
"It is getting late. We should make sure not to miss the bus back to Beijing.", I say to Paul while reaching the next peak. The next moment, I totally forget about what I said, as we look down on
the green lake of Simatai and the Sky Bridge, which connects the Beijing Watch Tower with the Fairy Tower. “I guess we have to cross that bridge”, I say to Paul, pointing at what from up here it
looks like a rope. The bridge, as we would figure out after getting down, is a hundred meters long, but only 40 centimeters wide. Once we manage to cross that bridge, we continue enjoying the
views on the lake from the Fairy Tower, until I realize that our bus is about to depart and there is no chance that we make it on time. Would they wait for us? Would they search for us? If not,
how do we get back?
“Look! we can do ziplining here.”. As I look at the steel ropes and a rather improvised looking device that is supposed to take us to the other side of the lake, I apathetically reply: “Probably it is too expensive”, so I don't have to think about whether I want to do this or not. The high price might be enough reason for Paul not to do it either. “Let me ask them!”, he says and walks over to the woman who sells the tickets, while I continue looking down on the lake, thinking about how I would simply drown if something would go wrong with this amateurish looking harness, because I cannot swim. On the other side of the lake I can see some boats.
“Man, it’s only 150 Yen! We’ve got to do it!”, he says excited. "You know, I have never done this before", I confess to him. I look at the primitive looking carabiner. The ride is probably so cheap because it's not safe. "Look, you see that? There are boats on the other side of the lake, and the boats will take us to the restaurant, where our bus is." - Paul does have a point. We are running out of energy and water, and if we try the zipline, we will save the time that we need to catch the bus back to Beijing. "You say you have never done this before? You have never travelled around the world before either, and now you do it! This is the right time to do it!", Paul argues, “This is a moment, we will not forget!”, he adds, as I look down the abyss, for a moment distracted by the beauty of the lake. I know he is right. This is not what I should do, this is what I need to do. “Let’s do it!”.
It is one of the most thrilling moments of the journey, as the zipline takes us to the other side of the lake. And suddenly I feel like the ride was way too short. How I wished we could do that all over again. Minutes later, Paul and I are on the same boat, this time literally, on our way to the restaurant, where we can see that our buses are still waiting. Paul and I wish each other good luck in our journeys, as we enter our buses and head back to Beijing.
In the hostel, everybody is in a good mood. One of the reasons is probably the free beer that we get here tonight. But even apart from that, the positivity that I find here among all the travellers is contagious. Because I want to feel more of Chinese culture, however, I soon leave the hostel for a while, agreeing on joining the group to go to a bar later tonight. When I was in Kuala Lumpur, although the city's Chinatown is usually on a traveller's to-do-list, I didn't feel any regrets not visiting Chinatown, because I knew that I was about to visit China country. And now, here in Beijing I finally have one of those feelings I had been craving for, a feeling that I hadn't felt that intensely on this entire trip so far, the feeling of being in a different world, where nothing reminds you of anything from your usual environment.
Because Facebook is banned here in China, the next morning I write my brother an e-mail to let my family know that everything is fine. "You know, one of the reasons that Facebook and also Youtube are banned here is to make sure that all the secret information on Tibet stays a secret", Locha,n the Korean guy that I met yesterday explains. He decides to accompany me to the Tiananmen Square. On the way he gives me some more insights, for instance on the Communist era here in China, when everybody had to eat the exact same food, an initiative that Mao Zedong, the infamous Communist leader at that time, called "Great Leap Forward", leading to what experts consider to be the greatest famine in history.
In an underground passage, everybody's bags and valuables are being scanned and inspected pretty much like in an airport. It is the passage that leads to the Tiananmen Square. All I know about this place is that in 1989 peaceful protests ended tragically with hundreds or thousands of casualties, depending on which sources you believe. Lochan told me earlier that nowadays, here in Beijing people will simply get arrested if they start any protests in which more than forty people participate.
On my final day in Beijing, I climb up the summer palace to have one last view on the Forbidden city and all its wooden structures, with all their curved roofs, arguably the most prominent features of Far Eastern architecture. According to UNESCO, with nearly one thousand in total, the Forbidden City has the highest concentration of wooden structures in the world. An impressive sight from up here, in spite of all the smog, for which this city is unfortunately known as well. Earlier today day I was finally inside of the Forbidden City to have a closer look at the different halls and various objects of prestige or symbolic meaning such as the throne in the Palace of Heavenly Purity or a cistern in the Hall of Surpreme Harmoney. As I observe the halls and objects, as well as the visitors here, who predominantly come from other parts of China and neighbouring countries, I conclude that China remains a mystery to me. Nevertheless, as I slowly prepare for the next destination, I feel grateful for having had this opportunity to gain my first impressions of this country, and for having been able to create moments that will last forever, especially the Simatai experience. Now that I have walked on the world's longest man-made structure, I am eagerly anticipating the next destination, where I hope to enter the highest man-made structure in the world.
Although Asian blood is running through my veins and I have been to the Islamic World before when I was a kid, as a man who was born and grew up in the West, I do expect to experience a little bit of a cultural shock in the upcoming destination. There is another reason why I am excited, because in the third country on the third continent of this journey it is the first time that I am all by myself, no relatives who are waiting for me at the airport, and no friends who conveniently drive me around to show me the best spots. The adventures in Asia begin in Malaysia.
Upon my arrival I understand very quickly, just why Kuala Lumpur's airport has been called the best airport in the world so many times. It's clean, modern, convenient and even gives you a small taste of Malaysia's natural assets in form of an artificial Jungle that has been prepared in the main hall. The airport seems professional enough to me to leave my luggage here until I return for the next flight, since I will only stay here for a short time.
The KLIA Express that takes me to the city center also leaves a good impression on me, being fast, comfortable and reliable. From a distance I see the two huge, illuminated towers that I have seen on pictures in the last couple of months while anticipating the beginning of my journey. Since this is only the second time that I see huge twin towers in my life, it reminds me of the World Trade Center. But, of course, even in the dark and from a distance I can see the most obvious differences, most notably the pinnacle design as well as a bridge that connects the two towers.
A little bit more than half an hour passes until the train stops at KL Central, where I need to get off. Here in Kuala Lumpur, I plan to stay at a so-called hostel, where you can share a room with other travellers for very affordable prices. I have never been to a hostel before, but since I am on my own, maybe it is not a bad idea to go to a place where I can meet other travellers. Inside a taxi I try to communicate with the driver, but he doesn't speak any English, so I just say in Malayan: „Saya mau pergi ke Chow Kit. Berapa Ongkos?“, asking for the price to get to Chow Kit, the district where the hostel is located where I want to stay. In my final phase of studies I could freely choose to visit all kinds of seminars, and among the variety of courses that I visited was an Indonesian language course, which I knew would be helpful here in Malaysia, as Indonesian and Malayan are basically the same language.
Although my dad has given me a cell phone for the journey, I haven't really used it, but it doesn't seem to work properly anyway. Since a few years smartphones have become a thing, and people can use those phones to conveniently get around. I never had a smartphone in my life, not because of any ideological reasons, but I just don't feel like I necessarily need it. Maybe one day. But here in Kuala Lumpur, getting around by just memorizing the streets and directions here without any help is somehow fun to me. I just hope that there is still a bed free in the hostel where I want to stay. Since I don't use any credit cards or anything similar, much like in all other destinations on this journey, I have not booked any hotel or hostel in advance. If the hostel is fully booked, I have two nearby alternative places that I checked in advance, just to be on the safe side.
While walking in the streets of Chow Kit, I begin to understand why the price of the hostel I chose is so cheap. The closer I get to the hostel, the stronger is the odor on the streets, and the creepier the people that I spot on the streets look. Eventually I find the street where the hostel is located. To my surprise, the hostel itself is clean and those working in the hostel are friendly. Down the stairs I have a smoke with some English travellers, who are ready to go out soon. I decide not to stay out for too long and just have one beer at a nearby karaoke bar. Tomorrow, early in the morning, I plan to reach what I consider to be one of the sightseeing highlights of the journey.
Inside the taxi I distract myself by looking at the unfamiliar Tamil architecture, and although mosques are not unfamiliar to me, some of their architectural features in this region are. It is quite a short taxi ride, as the caves are located only 13 kilometres outside of Kuala Lumpur. Still a little bit sleepy, as the driver tells me that we have arrived, I pay him, open up a can of Pepsi and get out of the car, when I finally notice this huge golden statue of the Hindu god of war Murugan, son of Shiva, the biggest staue of him in the world, standing right in front of the many stairs that lead to one of the several caves of that limestone hill. My uncle and aunt from Virginia did not exaggerate with their descriptions.
As I walk past the golden guardian of the caves, who is also known as Karitreya, and begin to climb the stairs, I try to get a glimpse of what is on top, when suddenly a monkey appears, standing in front of me, startling me so much that I try to keep my balance in order not to fall down all those stairs. As an inexperienced traveller from Germany you are just not used to see a free maqaque walking around all the time. He looks at me with a big grin on his face, while at the same time I notice that he is not the only one. Many other macaques begin to appear. An Indian man walks down the steps with his wife, and before he passes me, he warns me: „Beware of your soda“, pointing first at my can of Pepsi and then at the macaques. The one in front of me climbs further up and then looks back at me, as if he was expecting me to continue walking. I don't keep my new „tour guide“ waiting and follow him, while some of the other macaques look at me curiously.
Once I climb the final step of the 272 steps, I see the sun rays shining through the holes of the cave. The main cave of the so-called Batu Caves, known as the Temple Cave, tells the story of Murugan defeating a spirit called Surapadman. According to this legend, Murugan spared Surapadman's life after he accepted to be his Vahana, an animal that Hindu deities use as a transport means. Too distracted by the temple and the exotic environment, within a split second the macaque that I saw first snatches my Pepsi away and drinks it. I surely underestimated just how fast they can be.
Because I always wanted to know what a snake feels like, I give a local some money to put a snake around my neck, before heading back to the city, where I soon stand in front of the Petrona Towers. Amazed at the height I try to imagine how it will feel like, if I make it to Dubai and if I reach Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, which is more than twice as tall as the huge twin towers in front of me right now. Once I get inside and cross the Skybridge that connects the two towers, I enjoy the view on the city. However, from the top of the KL Tower that I visit right thereafter, one of the highest TV towers in the world, you even have a better view on Malaysia's capital. In my final moments of exploring the city, I decide to use the monorail to briefly explore Bukit Bintang, known for its malls and nightlife. However, I the exotic vibe that I experienced at the Batu Caves is still in my head, only increasing my anticipation for the next destination, which I expect to give me even a much bigger cultural shock.
At the railway station, ready to head to the airport to reach the next country, a group of taxi drivers inform me that the KLIA Express is no longer running, because it is almost midnight. For a moment I think that maybe they just want me to pay for a way more expensive taxi. Once I ask how much a taxi ride to the airport costs, it is clear that they are overcharging me. It makes me wonder if they are lying with regards to the KLIA Express not running. As they see that I am ready to take the elevator up to the railway station, the drivers point at a KLIA Express stand, where you allegedly buy the ticket. The stand is obviously closed, and it does indeed say KLIA Express. They seem to be right. I look at how much money and start to negotiate with the drivers. They agree to lower the price, albeit the amount of money they ask for is still ridiculous. But do I have a choice? It's better than to miss my flight. So, I get ready to put my luggage in the trunk of the taxi. While doing so, however, I see this Malaysian man looking at me, as the elevator is taking him up to the railway station. He shakes his head while looking at me, apparently giving me a signal that I should not listen to the taxi drivers. I look at the taxi drivers, then at him, and then again at them. "We can help you and take your luggage", one of the drivers says. The more often I look at the man using the elevator, the more desperate the taxi drivers' call to enter the taxi sounds, prompting me to take my luggage and to take the elevator up to the railway station.
Even if for some reason they say the truth, which I highly doubt, taxi drivers can wait, trains don't. A guy in front of the ticket counter who looks like he is working here lets me know that the KLIA is no longer running. But I still remember the man in the elevator, a guy whom I would never see again shaking the head. He had no reason to be untruthful, which is why I still head to the ticket counter, where I finally get the certainty that the taxi drivers lied, the guy upstairs pretending to work here lied, and even the closed KLIA ticket stand downstairs was fake.
On the way to the train I see the local that I saw in the elevator. "How much did they ask for?" - “100 Ringgit”, I reply, thanking him for his signal, as we enter the train and have a nice chat until we reach the airport and wish each other good luck for everything. In the main hall of the airport, after checking in, I have a seat and look back at my stay here in Kuala Lumpur, happy that I got to do all I planned to do all by myself in such a short amount of time. For the first time I got an idea of how it feels like when you are travelling all by yourself. However, this was just a small taste of what it feels like to travel all by yourself, only a little preparation for what I believe to be the biggest challenge of all the countries I have chosen.
On sunday, the night after partying excessively in Hollywood's Whisky a Go Go and other clubs, I prepare for the next flight, the longest flight of them all, taking me to the second country of the around-the-world trip. Between Melbourne and Los Angeles there is a time difference of 17 hours, and the duration of the flight is sixteen hours, which is why I arrive only two days later and feel like the 12th of April, 2010 never really existed in my life, as if I just travelled to the future. At the airport of Australia's cultural capital I meet my cousin, whom - much like all my relatives in Pakistan - I haven't seen for 14 years. She introduces me to her husband Saleem and their children. We get to know each other better once we reach their apartment. Too jet-lagged and excited to fall asleep, I soon decide to explore Melbourne.
The first stop is the Federation Square, where I inspect the unique edifices, while occasionally being distracted by various street artists entertaining the passersby, most notably the big group
of old men in suits who walk down the street with an exaggerated and theatrical expression of confidence while performing A Capella. Apart from a lot of artists I also notice that many people are
giving away flyers trying to sell cards for international phone calls, which is also not a surprise. Naturally, the demand is very high, bearing in mind that at least a third of Melbourne's
population was born overseas and people from all kinds of countries live here, usually having relatives in their country of origin, most notably from China, Ireland, Italy and India.
Enjoying the view on Eureca tower's skydeck is a great way to get some orientation, I conclude, as I look at different spots and landmarks, some of which I will surely have a closer look at in the next days. Standing out in Melbourne's cityscape are various structures and places such as the Melbourne stadium, the CBD buildings, Herring island or the Federation Square that I visited earlier today, whose modern, deconstructivist style stands in stark contrast not only with the many Victorian buildings, but especially with the Flinder Street Railway Station, another very eye-catching landmark designed in the style of French Renaissance.
In a bar I hang out with a local, who complains about the expensive university fees in Melbourne. Generally speaking, however, Australians seem so laid back to me, and even high university fees don't change anything about it. In Germany, after the comparably low fees of 500€ per semester had been introduced a few years ago, students started protesting nationwide. I was among those people on the streets in Frankfurt protesting against the fees. Fortunately, our region became the first region in Germany offering free education again.
The conversation with the local revolving around university fees reminds me of my master thesis that I still have to finish. Because of curiosity rather than feeling pressure I decide to enter the State Library of Victoria Library to see if there are any useful sources. However, I don't stay too long in that neoclassical building and instead decide to sit down on a bench in front of the library to take some notes on my travel adventures so far, when a Korean approaches me and starts a conversation with me. Once he starts talking about God, it is no longer hard to guess what he is up to. The next couple of minutes I am patiently listening to the Witness of Jehova, until he finishes his sermon with the sentence: "God is like air. You don't see him, but he is there!"
I look at the Korean guy, who is waiting for my reply, and so I begin to speak: "Yes. I agree to some extent.", I say, as he smiles and probably anticipates my conversion. "But you know, if you look at it from an Islamic perspective, we just talk about this one entity that holds the entire universe together and keeps expanding it. Many people still have this misperception that Allah is the "Islamic God", when Allah is just the Arabic word for God and is used by Christians and Jews in the Arab world as well. As a matter of fact, the word "Allah" derives from the word "Elohim" in Hebrew, which you also find in the Thora, of course, since Arabic and Hebrew are both semitic languages, you naturally have a lot of similarities. And can you believe that there are still people who think that Jesus is exclusively a Christian thing and Mohammed is an Islamic thing, when in fact Jesus is mentioned in the Quran more often than Mohammed and is a prophet that all Muslims love?! You know what I mean?"
After preaching back for a few minutes, the Witness of Jehova has had enough of me and escapes, and I can now finally focus on my notes. I begin to recall some of the things I have experienced on this trip so far, like the night when I reunited with Chris and when his mother said: "Never forget", referring to the most important quote from the Quran. A few nights later I already forgot. It was a wild, final night in Hollywood. Here in Melbourne I decide to take it more easy.
"Will you come with me to the mosque?", the husband of my cousin asks me the next day. Although, so far, I have only prayed once on this trip and I pray rarely otherwise, I cannot say no and join him. Trying to remember the right positioning, not much later I stand in front of the Minbar inside the mosque, which signalizes the prayer direction for Muslims based on where Mekka is located, the holiest place in the Islamic world, which every Muslim is supposed to visit one day, as long as he is capable of doing so.
The following days I continue to explore Melbourne, enjoying the Yarra River Cruise that allows me to have a closer look at Herring island, the artificial island that I saw from the Eureca Skydeck, and thereafter heading to various spots with my relatives such as Greenvale, the Royal Botanic Garden, the Coburg Lake Park, where we have a picnic before spending a lot of time at one of Australia’s largest war memorials, the Shrine of Remembrance, which is dedicated to the Australians that served during World War I. On a more quiet day I decide to relax at St. Kilda Beach, located at the Philipp Port bay, which for 40000 years used to be the home of three clans of the Aborigines before the British imperialists arrived. And of course, my first time in Australia would not be complete without visiting the Melbourne Zoo, where we spend a full day observing Australia's most venomous snakes and spiders, Koala Bears and other animals, before ending this fun day feeding Kangaroos.
On my last day in Melbourne I spend some time with my cousin and her family, while watching TV. Saleem talks to some relatives in Pakistan on the phone. "Of course I know what's going on in Pakistan better than you. We have electricity and access to the news!", he jokes. Once he hangs up, he informs me that there was another terrorist attack in Pakistan with dozens of casualties. "Again?" - I remember the news that I saw in Alexandria when we were watching TV at Billu's place. "Just two weeks ago there was this terror attack in Peshawar killing over fourty people". Meanwhile in Europe several airports, including the Frankfurt International Airport, are not accessible because a volcano has erupted in Iceland, we learn from the TV news. Originally, Iceland was scheduled to be the very first destination of the around-the-world trip, because it was initially offered as a free stop-over on the way to New York. Unfortunately, after my second visit, some changes had to be made. And fortunately, I decided not to start but to end my around-the-world trip in Europe, where right now many flight passengers are facing a hard time.
The next parts of the journey should be planned very carefully, because I have spent as much time in Australia now as I will be spending time in the next three countries combined. From now on everything will go so fast. I better get used to all the things that travellers have to take care off, to make sure that the passport is in a safe place, that the camera is charged, that I have a copy of the pictures I have taken, and that I know how to easily get to the places where I want to sleep. With my cousin, who is still that funny, positive and talkative girl like 14 years ago, I have a chat, and much like in our childhood, I tease her a little bit. "Don't forget, you have no health insurance!", she warns me jokingly, before we talk about my next destination, the first country in my life, where I will be all by myself, without any friends of relatives living there. “Do you have a plan B?”, she asks me then, wondering what I do if I miss one of the flights or if anything goes wrong. "No.", I simply reply
It is the night before everything will change. While I am waiting for the barkeeper to bring me a beer, I think about the questions that I have been asking myself since January 2009: “How far would you go? How far would you go for love? How far would you go to live? Not just to live, but to really feel alive? And how far would you go to finally overcome this forever seeming, depressing chapter of your life?’.
On the surface, in early 2009 life seemed to be great. It finally looked like I could overcome my, at times, self-destructive lifestyle that had been developing since my adolescent years. I was getting closer and closer to the goal that I once thought was unachievable for me, to graduate from the Goethe University in Frankfurt and to receive an MA degree in American studies. At the market research institute, where I was working, apart from conducting interviews, I additionally received the authority to monitor and coach other interviewers. And my family seemed glad to see the progress in my life. It was not just the fear of failure or the uncertainty in terms of my future perspectives that were sources of tension. As all of us have felt at some point in life, deep inside I was dealing with a rollercoaster ride of emotions, and that rollercoaster was driving me insane, driving so uncontrollably that it was about to derail, as the screws were getting loose, and the driving force of that rollercoaster was love.
As usual, I dealt with the negative feelings by turning it into something artistic, whenever I met with my band mates from ‘Love Turns Hate’, writing new songs and presenting them on stage. In winter, we were already looking forward to next summer, but not because of the weather. We learned that on July 24th we would play the longest concert we had ever given. Although that date was more than half a year ahead from us, I had already decided to make this date my personal turning point of the year. However, to me, this was not only about us making music. Much rather I was determined to do all the things after that night of which I thought I was not able to do: To quit smoking, to quit drinking, and to fast all thirty day of the Islamic month Ramadan, something which I had never done before, despite having a Muslim background, as in early 2009, I was still in my transition phase from being an agnostic to becoming a believer, albeit far from being pious.
Despite of having all those plans after July 24th, the feeling would not leave me that I needed to entirely turn my life upside down before it would be too late. My early premonition prompted me to try to come up with an emergency exit to bypass a potential future reality that I do not want to face. Replacing such an undesired reality is most likely achievable in an environment, where nothing would remind me of the undesired reality, which is why I began craving to go somewhere far, far away. Maybe I just start to feel burned out and needed holidays? At least I could look forward to travel to Amsterdam with my friends in late summer. But apart from temporarily having a good time, what would it really change? Something inside of me insisted that I needed to do something that will have a real and significant impact on my life.
It was a day like any other, where I was daydreaming, thinking about remote places, and soon looking for ticket prices to fly to different destinations. It rarely happened that I travelled, and on those occasions when I did, usually I could only afford a short trip to a neighbouring country. As I looked at the different offers online, I easily concluded that a one-week All-Inclusive trip to Mallorca, where I would briefly escape the daily routine that ate me up inside, and where I would feel only more frustration after feeling care-free abroad, because I would fall back into the unbearable routine, would not have the intended impact on my life that would close that chapter of futility
For a while I was forgetting that as a student, who hopes to graduate from university next year, I neither have the time nor the money to initiate a life-changing journey. Instead, I tried to decide, which country I want to visit. As much as I felt the urge to travel to an exotic and untypical destination, where ideally nothing will remind me of my usual environment, I could not ignore the idea of returning to two very familiar destinations. Maybe I just need to remember where I come from and return to my country of origin to visit my big family there, which I have not seen since I was a child. Given that I hope to receive my MA degree in American Studies next year, however, the scenario of returning to New York seems logical, especially considering the precious memories of ten years ago, my first trip to New York, when I was a young kid that was overwhelmed by all he had seen during the trip, places he had previously only seen in the movies.
‘How I wished that I could do all three of the trips that I want to do’, I was thinking, and just out of boredom and curiosity, I started to check the prices of combined flights, which was of course way too expensive. While googling about traveling, I soon found the website of STA Travel, which offers around-the-world trips. To get some inspiration, I clicked on it. ‘How I wished that I could afford to make this dream of traveling the world come true’, I began to fantasize even more. Before it could happen that I gave up on that thought, I started to notice something about the prices. The combined tickets of STA Travel are considerably cheaper than booking each flight separately, because the stopovers are included in the price as additional, free destinations.
Was it, as usual, another one of those meaningless moments of short-lived euphoria, in which we come up with big ideas and plans for our lives, only to forget about everything the very next day? Is it just a temporary distraction from my everyday reality? Am I just killing time, or bringing a substantial idea to life? This time something was different. ‘There must be a way!’, I was thinking, telling myself that this could be the solution, and erasing all the doubts in my mind, no matter how far-fetched traveling around the world sounded.
As I calculated, how much money I could save in the next months, at first it did not look like I can afford it at all, until I listed in detail, just how much I could reduce my spending every month, and how many working hours I would need to fulfil, finally concluding that if I work every single day and considerably reduce my spending every month, theoretically it is possible to travel around the world. The question was, just how much I wanted and how much I needed it.
Months passed, but not one day, in which I neglected my goal to earn enough money to be able to afford the around-the-world trip. The cute girl who works at my place made my time at the working place fly whenever she was there, and made it feel like an eternity whenever she was not around, which gave me more inspiration for the concert on July 24th. Going out more rarely and relinquishing many of those things that young men do, I instead used the time to regularly and precisely calculate how much I spent on a daily, weekly and annual basis for everything. The amount of money on my account kept increasing steadily. Although it was not much money, it was more money than I had ever saved in my life, which boosted my confidence. Before July 24th, the day that I chose to be the turning point of the year, I had saved enough money to book an around-the-world ticket, but only the cheapest around-the-world ticket available, which consisted of only five destinations. Moreover, I concluded, I needed certain destinations that are not listed on their website to be part of my first real huge travel experience, most notably my country of origin, which can be added if you create a personalized itinerary.
There was not much concern in terms of spending the money that I had saved thus far for something else, because I was convinced that no smartphone, no guitar, no car, no flat and no girls can change the futile direction, in which I was heading. A much bigger problem was time, as I was still confronted with the challenge that I will not be able to travel for too long in the final phase of my studies. Yet, I had no time to think about time, and as I tried not to fall back in that hole again, where I had been stuck before, there was nothing else left to hold on to than the idea of traveling the world. Even if I will not be able to stay abroad for too long, I was sure that such a trip would be filled with moments that I would never forget, potentially even replace the memories that I want to forget and enable me to finally move on with my life. The concern that everything stayed the same was so much bigger than any concern regarding time, money and traveling.
For more than half a year I had been waiting for this night. On the 24th of July I was not concerned about anything going wrong giving our longest concert ever. Instead, I mentally prepared for all that I intended on doing, or on not doing anymore, after tonight. After 90 excessive minutes on stage, I was celebrating with my friends, until I ended up drunk in a corner somewhere, asking myself that question again: ‘How far would you go?’.
The following day I quit smoking and drinking. In late summer, I was determined to fast all the thirty days of Ramadan for the very first time in my life. Given that I had been agnostic before, even just a few days of fasting seemed impossible to me at first. But as much as I was seemingly achieving, in terms of education, leisure, work and health, everything felt incomplete without the spiritual component, which is why I focused on Islam, asking God to give me one chance to make the impossible seeming possible, to let this much needed miracle happen.
However, there was one thing that I had not considered in my plans. Some of the last days of Ramadan would coincide with me flying to Amsterdam with my friends to party, something we had been planning for quite a while, which is why I decided to stick to the original plan of traveling to one of Europe’s biggest nightlife destinations, but without abandoning my plan to fast every day even during the trip. For once in my life I resisted all the temptations in an ultra-hedonistic environment, stayed straight edge, somehow even managed to ignore the girls and fasted every single day of Ramadan, which in hindsight was much, much easier than I thought it would be. Feeling healthier and more balanced than ever before, I was soon back in Germany, noticing that even the girl I have a crush on seemed to connect with me more and more.
“Another beer please”, I call the barkeeper and open another bottle, before I continue reminiscing about my more pious times, trying to remember just how the hell I managed not to drink or smoke for three months. Some people had this perception that just because I turned to God, I would become something like a saint. But despite of all the progress that I had made, all the concerns about the future, the pressure of working daily while making progress at the university, as well as being ridiculously and hopelessly in love with a girl who turned out to be in love with somebody else, made me realize that I had reached a dead end, and I felt that the only way out was to turn around and to give in to all kinds of temptations, until I found myself at yet another dead end, and not even my writing songs, playing guitar on stage and screaming out my soul would be able to navigate me through this labyrinth of life anymore. The threatening reality that I foresaw in the beginning of this year became real.
All too often we only talk about big plans and big ideas, how we could do this and that, without ever doing any of those things. This time, I did not feel like talking about what was on my mind the most to anyone. The last months, I kept silent on all my plans, picking out ten destinations to fly around the world. In September, without saying a word to anyone, I visited the office of the STA travel agency to discuss the possibilities. In the end of the same month, having thought everything through, I knew that if I really want to dare this step, it must happen within the next days.
On the 1st of October, in a moment of utter frustration, having had a bad day at work while at the same time being reminded that I can never be with the girl that I like, thinking about this sadistic phenomenon of somebody feeling attraction towards you the more you try to stay away from that person, while feeling rejection the more you show interest, thinking about how I can no longer function like a machine with all the intimidating social constraints to not feel like a human, to not say what is really on your mind, and to not talk about how you really feel, I began to masochistically force myself to solely focus on all the negative moments in life that reminded me of failure and humiliation, until I felt anger to an extent that I said ‘enough is enough’ and left the flat to finally use my ‘secret weapon of mass construction’ and make the counter-reality that I had envisioned real once and for all. The next two hours I felt like I was in a trance condition, leaving my flat, withdrawing thousands of Euros from the bank, visiting the travel agency in Frankfurt again, compiling my personal travel itinerary with the staffs, giving them thousands of Euro in cash and receiving an invoice and booking confirmation.
In the metro, on my way back home, I stared at the ticket, at the amount that I payed and the confirmed destinations. On April 1st, it has been confirmed, I am going to attend twelve flights to visit ten countries, five of them hand-picked, five additional free stopovers, on four continents, traveling around the world in six weeks. With eyes wide open I ask myself: ‘What on earth have I just done?’ In disbelief I look at the pieces of paper, which confirm that in six months the biggest journey in my life will start. ‘Traveling around the world’. All my life I used these words in a hyperbolic context, which reinforces the misleading view that doing so is impossible for people like me. Only thereafter I started to think about all the things that can go wrong. It was too late for doubts or second-guessing. Now there was no turning back.
To my friends and family, I finally announced that I have booked an around-the-world ticket. As expected, the reactions ranged from disbelief to support to discouragement and envy. Some found it suspicious that my trip around the world would start on April Fool’s day and thought that I was joking, which was understandable. Had somebody told me in the beginning of the year that I would book an around the world-ticket, I would certainly not have taken it seriously. My mother almost hoped that it was a joke: ‘How will you manage to attend twelve flight in six weeks, when you even oversleep your band rehearsals?’. Point made. I tried not to think about my sleeping problems, and instead kept myself busy with work, studies and organizing the around-the-world trip, while the word of me traveling around the world kept spreading in my hometown of Offenbach. A few people were thinking too much about all the things that I would miss out on, if I travel for such a short amount of time, instead of thinking about all the things that I would see and experience. I did not know how to react to such criticism: „Yes, you are right, I will not fly around the world to visit ten countries and stay in Offenbach instead, to make sure that I will not miss out on anything”? The discouraging words did not matter anymore, because the flights were already booked.
Meanwhile, new opportunities started to arise for our band in the beginning of 2010. And roughly two weeks before the great adventure would start, we participated in the qualification round of the world’s biggest band contest, where the winners of each region in each country would have the chance to record a studio album and to sign a contract with a label. With the help of our supporters we became the number one band in the qualification Round in Frankfurt and thus made it to the semi-finals in our region.
While taking another sip from my drink, I think about the most successful concert that we had ever given. Now we have reached the semi-finals, of which I will not be a part of, because they coincide with my around-the-world trip. As much of a pity it is, as much I knew that even the passion that I evidently have for what our band has been doing, would not suffice to defeat my worst enemy at that time, which was a part of myself.
Therefore, I now redirect my focus to the big challenge ahead of me. On the one hand, I feel prepared. On the other hand, other people would disagree, because I am known to be a chaotic person. Just last week, I lost my bank card. Fortunately, I found it again a few days later. ‘Maybe it was good that this happened to me shortly before the around-the-world trip begins, as it serves as a reminder, just how much a I have to take care of my valuables when I am abroad’, I tried to calm down my mother in a diplomatic way. Somehow she was not really convinced.
Just shortly before I ended up in this bar, where I order another beer, I bid farewell to my brother, with whom I have been philosophizing about the world and about God extensively. He gave me a book with Quranic verses, after which my mother gave me a necklace with Quranic verses and said some prayers for me, which I myself say too rarely. Friends of mine surprised me with a certain amount of US-dollars as a gift, whereas my dad gave me a mobile phone. Although I usually never use mobile phones, it may come in handy during my journey, especially in case of emergency.
On my way back home, I meet an Afghani named Faiz, an Arabic word that means ‘successful’. “Do you know if there is a bar open here?”, he asks. ‘Well I just came from a bar’, I reply, and he offers me to join him to have some drinks. For a moment I think about the fact that I have less than eight hours left to take my first flight of the around-the-world trip. I better take the biggest undertaking of my life seriously, stay fit, focused and be prepared for tomorrow. After finishing my thought, we enter the bar and have just one more drink, after which we have just another drink, and a couple more, until I finally say goodbye to ‘successful’ and drag my intoxicated body back home, where I sit in front of the computer for a while and look at all my plans for the journey, not because I understand anything of what I am doing in my current condition, but because I feel like this is what globetrotters do.
Hardly able to concentrate, I look at the different entry requirements, visa regulations, public transport systems, health aspects, financial plans, accommodation options, bla, bla, bla, screw that, screw life, and screw the girl that I can never have, too, screw tiping errors as well, no longafraitomake the miss takes, screw everything. There we go, now I get menalcoholic and fall into self-pity, for a moment thinking about all that has been dragging me down, after which I switch on the music, here it is, my therapist. Let’s listen to something calm tonight. “Running up that Hill” by PlaceBo. Sounds good to me. It’s very late, I better lay down and close my eyes.
„And if I only could; I'd make a deal with God”. I open my eyes again, while listening to the chorus of the song, thinking about the last one and a half years leading up to all that will begin the next morning. ‘How far would you go?’, I have been asking myself for so long. Now I know: Around the World.