The Uncomfortable Beauty Of Being Somewhere New

Some musings on those initial moments in an unfamiliar place and embracing the unpredictability and vulnerability of the first 24 hours in a new destination.
The Uncomfortable Beauty Of Being Somewhere New

I live for those first few moments in an unfamiliar place.

After a hundred flights to dozens of countries it still never gets old.

Very little compares to the feeling of seeing ocean turn to farmland turn to city, all while descending from 30,000 feet.

Although the process maybe familiar — stepping off a Boeing or Airbus, navigating immigration & baggage, finding my local transportation —  leaving the safe haven of the airport and setting foot on foreign soil is always exciting and unpredictable.

The first 24 hours in a new place is a fleeting moment in time where you are totally vulnerable but still must surrender to the discomfort.

Into The Heart of Darkness - Mal Pais, Costa Rica

I remember the first time I ever experienced the uncomfortable beauty of being somewhere new.

It was 2005 and my brother and I were making the night drive from San Jose, Costa Rica to Mal Pais — it was one of my first ‘real’ foreign travel adventures.

I felt as if we were driving to the edge of the world and if anything happened, no one would ever find us.

To complicate matters, at the time rentals cars were primarily manual transmission and other than my brother’s 3 months of driving dump trucks a few summers prior, neither of us had any real experience with them.

The final absurdity of this first adventure occurred when we crossed a solid yellow line to pass a fruit truck puttering along at a mere 5 kilometers/hour.

We were immediately pulled over by the conveniently well positioned policia national sitting just past the curve in the road.

Fortunately, I was prepared enough for this one and my copy of “The Surfers Guide to Costa Rica” was quite accurate in the fact that there was very little $20 couldn’t fix as far as it pertained to police encounters.

Admittedly, Costa Rica is probably one of the most accessible Central American destinations to a traveler from the United States and the Mal Pais/Santa Teresa region is overrun with tourists and ex-pats but back then it felt like an adventure straight out of Heart of Darkness.

Twenty Four Hours In London

My first — and only — day in London was a much different, yet equally intense experience.

I flew there to meet my sister who was living north of the city at the time.

We had planned a week in Ireland but I came a day early to sightsee.

Jet lagged and completely discombobulated, we embarked on a 12 hour tour of London where she attempted to show me the city’s ‘greatest hits’ — most of which I’ve admittedly forgotten.

To this day I think the most memorable part of my first and only twenty four hours in London was walking along the Thames, making it to the Tower Bridge and Globe Theatre and then confessing to her that as much as I wanted to continue the tour, I really just wanted to throw in the towel and grab a pint of Carlsberg in a dark pub somewhere.

Lost In Translation in Casablanca

There was also the time I got off the plane in Casablanca and had to learn on demand how to navigate the Moroccan railway network in hopes of catching a train south to El Jadida.

I spent weeks leading up to the trip trying to learn the basics of Arabic but my efforts were completely derailed when I found that French was the preferred language of choice.

At the time, Morocco was well off the beaten path for Americans but it was a bit of an underground hot spot for Europeans.

So, despite the language barrier, the concierges circling the concourse as I descended from the airport terminal into the train station were more than able to help me buy a ticket and stick me on a train.

After making it to El Jadida, I took a cab from the train station to the hostel, accidentally giving the driver €20 instead of 20 Moroccan Dirham — around €2.

At that moment in time, context switching from US Dollar to Euro to Moroccan Dirham was far too much for my overstimulated and exhausted mind to process.

I vividly remember the smile on his face when I insisted that I didn’t need change.

Managua At Night

Every time I land on that sketchy runway better known as Augusto C. Sandino International Airport and step into the warm Nicaraguan evening I’m instantly transported back to my early visits back in 2009 and 2010.

While a lot has changed over the 15 years since my first trip, some things remain constant — most notably the scent of burning jungle debris mixed with a healthy dose of plastics and other refuse.

“Managua at Night”, as I lovingly refer to it, is the type of scent that is instantly etched into your nasal passages.

It is also in no way exclusive to Nicaragua and can pretty much be found in any country without a public garbage collection program.

Shamelessly, anytime I catch a hint of it, even back home, it gives me warm fuzzy feelings and brings a smile to my face.

Morning Magic In Ubud

My first morning in Ubud started around 3:30AM.

I was completely rested but after 42 hours of flights and layovers, my body clearly was unsure of what time it might be.

I stepped out of my villa where I would be living and teaching for next few months and into a completely different world.

As I adventured out into the cool, jasmine tinged air, I began to just walk.

Even at that hour, Ubud was starting to come alive.

Women decorated in traditional saris were preparing prayer offerings for the day, people were starting to gather at the temples and setup was well underway at the city’s open air market.

Soon, the still morning turned into the controlled chaos of motorbikes darting from every direction and traffic jams inevitably caused by an oversized SUV or tour bus attempting to navigate the city’s narrow streets.

The cool night air was quickly giving way to the intense heat, humidity and vehicle exhaust of the day.

I must have wandered for hours and and later on I would realize that I walked from Monkey Forest Road to Raya Ubud and back — easily a 4km round trip.

San Sebastián Don’t Surf

Since my first trip to Barcelona and its eastern coast in 2009, Spain has always been one of my favorite places to visit and I’ve been back several times.

One of my more unique arrival moments occurred the time I flew to Madrid with a surfboard and a travel itinerary consisting of a quick overnight in the city center, a train ride to Bilbao to meet up with my sister and then pressing on to San Sebastián and then to Southern France to surf and explore Basque Country.

My first 24 hours in country involved a lot of time awkwardly navigating my 40L travel backpack, Timbuk2 messenger bag, and 7’ surfboard bag through Madrid’s metro system and city center.

In retrospect, traveling with a surfboard through landlocked Spain probably wasn’t my smartest decision but the looks I got from passengers and other onlookers was priceless.

Bangkok Mindfuck

Experiencing Thailand, especially Bangkok, as a westerner for the first time is an absolute mindfuck.

It’s easily one of the biggest, most advanced, yet economically disparate places I’ve ever visited.

It’s also one of my favorite places to get lost in.

Bangkok is a place where street food vendors blend with skyscraper sized shopping malls and ornate Buddhist temples share city blocks with trendy clubs, boutiques or perhaps event a massage parlor.

Bangkok isn’t for everyone and it is much different than anywhere else in Thailand, but I have such an appreciation for dropping into the madness of a city where your commute will usually involve a combination of GrabTaxi, the BTS (their super modern elevated train system that makes the NY Subway look like a dilapidated relic of a past era), Canal Boat, and perhaps even a Tuk Tuk for good measure.

The sheer scope and scale of everything in Bangkok is guaranteed to invoke complete sensory overload most of the time, and especially so on arrival.

New cities, languages barriers, jet lag, and immersing yourself in an unfamiliar culture can be intimidating, but it also provides a unique sense of excitement.

These experiences can be challenging in the moment, but they often become some of our most clear and vivid memories, long after the details of meals, social outings, and the people we’ve met have started to fade.

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