Touching the world

For this traveler, a combination of numerous countries, new cultures and captivating people made for an eye-opening 2010.

Sakurajima volcano in Japan 521 (photo credit: Masada Siegel)
Sakurajima volcano in Japan 521
(photo credit: Masada Siegel)
I had just arrived in Washington, DC, and of all things I needed a red wig for my Halloween costume as the Russian spy Anna Chapman. Lo and behold, as I was walking down Second Street, I spotted a wig shop. I walked down a narrow staircase and was greeted by two Chinese ladies.
Giggling, I picked up a wig, tucked my brown locks inside. Then I called Rich and asked him to meet me at the shop to get his expert opinion. I had not seen him since we toured Hong Kong together earlier this year.
Smiling into the mirror, a redhead grinned back at me.
It was a startling new look, and it got me thinking about change.
This year started with a column I wrote about changing the world for others and being motivated to make the world a better place. I don’t know about the world, but I know I have changed over the course of the year.
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My adventures started in Rome. I always become religious in Italy. It’s not the influence of the Vatican, it was riding on the back of my friend Elena’s motorcycle.
While I look the part of the carefree party girl – black miniskirt, tall black leather high-heeled boots, hair blowing in the wind – looks are deceiving. I’m always deep in prayer that I will survive another ride through the cobblestone streets and the insane drivers.
Elena and I laugh endlessly, and spending time with her is non-stop fun. She works in Italy’s version of Hollywood, and the parties we attend are filled with blinding bulbs flashing from the photographers capturing fabulous famous people.
Having been to Rome a few times, I have an eclectic group of friends. There is Serg, who is Italian nobility, and stepping into his home is like walking into a museum.
And my friend Rami, a glamorous photographer who shoots fashion for Italian designer Valentino.
One afternoon, I joined the multi-talented Rami at his studio, where he cooked me a gourmet lunch. We caught up, and he talked about his first trip to Israel and how magical and meaningful it was to him.
Comparing his Israeli experience to my Italian one, I understood why I can’t stop smiling in Rome. The city changed for me from my first visit because I am no longer a tourist. Strangely, I felt at home in a place where I don’t speak the language – because I have friends. So sometimes, while the excitement of the first time in a new place is exhilarating, I found the comfort of knowing the city, and the quality friendships I have in Rome makes it even more special.
Just a few weeks later, it was the exact opposite. I was en route to Shanghai and was extremely nervous.
Although I generally travel solo, I never find myself alone. Through my friend Gil in San Francisco, I was introduced to Tal, an Israeli living in China.
I met up with Tal at a Starbucks in Shanghai. We wandered through the crowded twisted streets of the old city, and he showed me local hangouts. As he speaks some Chinese, it was a special experience negotiating in the markets. It almost made me feel like I was at the shuk in the Old City of Jerusalem.
I laughed when I realized that in China I was speaking more Hebrew than English. Spending time with Tal made me realize how one person can make an enormous difference.
He turned an overwhelming city of more than 20 million people into an intriguing and manageable place.
In a mere 11 months, I experienced a myriad of countries, new cultures and captivating people.
Places such as Ireland made me feel like I was walking in a fairy tale, while others depressed me with Sovietstyle block buildings and poverty. Along the way in my worldwide adventures, I met people who opened my heart and inspired me, while others left me feeling dismayed with their cruelty.
My introduction to Japan was Hiroshima. Standing in the pouring rain of the Peace Park, commemorating the loss of lives from the atomic bomb that was dropped in 1945, a lump formed in my throat. Thankfully the rain splattered on my face, washing away the tears.
In Japan, I encountered another kind of blast. A huge boom shook the sky, white smoke billowing upwards while sparks of orange fire danced into the clear blue sky.
I stared into the distance without fear. It wasn’t a manmade disaster but Sakurajima speaking loud and clear.
An extremely active volcano, Sakurajima stands 1,120 meters high on an island in the Kagoshima Bay.
Besides fear and beauty, volcanic activity also brings geysers and a unique way for the ultimate in relaxation. In nearby Ibusuki, the traditional Japanese sand bath was developed over 350 years ago. The geothermal geysers heat the sand to about 27ºC. The day spas use offer sand baths where people strip down, slip into a kimono and lie down while they cover you up to your neck with sand. It is an intense experience, according to fellow traveler Shawn Pelofsky. “The sand was nice and warm at first, but after 15 minutes I felt like I was the volcano ready to erupt! It was like being on fire. Ten minutes is definitely enough time to stimulate blood circulation and detox,” she said.
THE WORLD changes constantly, becoming more sophisticated and tech savvy; however, human emotions stay the same in every culture. No matter where I went, I watched people and saw the same expressions everywhere, ranging from laughter, joy, hate and love to fear and indifference.
Another adventure took me to Washington, where I attended Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.
It was also about change. It was intriguing not only because it was fun but also because it was about the reality of change demanded by everyday people from world leaders.
Sometimes we change because others’ actions teach us harsh lessons of reality, while other times we choose to change and become better, more thoughtful people.
I believe that filling your world with beauty and positivity is the best way to evoke change. Among the many incredible places Rich and I visited in Hong Kong was Lantau Island. We arrived and took the 360 Ngong Ping cable car through a thick fog while rain drizzled down.
The clouds and mist were so thick, we could not even see the Tian Tan Buddha, the world’s largest sitting Buddha.
It was like walking in a gray dream world. I remember wishing aloud for the clouds to go away and for the sun to shine. Needless to say, everyone I was with laughed.
However, 20 minutes later the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, and the wind blew the mist into the mountains and the sun’s rays danced over the water.
Truly, the possibilities for change are endless. I know at times this year, just like everyone else, I have walked through my own personal fog, wondering where my sunshine was. However, change happens in the most unusual ways. Sometimes new friends turn into old friends who bring sunshine into your world.
This brings us back full circle to the wig shop in Washington.
Rich arrived and hugged me warmly. He smiled broadly as I put on the red wig. I could see the laughter in his eyes when he said, “You have to get it. It’s so you – really, it’s perfect.” I grinned and thought, when someone as dashing, sophisticated and all-around good man such as Rich uses “perfection” in reference to me, red wig and all, a little change can go a long way.