I was nervous that first day, as my parents helped me unload my suitcase next to the airport terminal. They hugged and kissed me goodbye as I departed into the terminal, not to see them again for five weeks. Twenty four hours later I landed in Damascus, Syria completely exhausted but ready for the new experiences traveling abroad provides. Only this time, I was on my own, without my parents or friends with me. I was only 14, but my parents knew that my maturity was beyond my age. I was picked up by my cousin and his family, who were all there waiting for me. I was greeted with the warmest, most sincere greeting I had ever had. This was what family meant. I knew instantly this summer was going to be one to remember.
I was there to visit family, tour the country, and study. I met up with my friend, who had traveled separately a week later, and we attended a small madrasa, or school, that was in a run down, poorer area of the city. We studied Arabic, history, and the Islamic religion alongside students who were practically homeless, had it not been for the school. It was a boarding school, small and run down, but the people were so sincere, so kind, so generous that I could not believe people so much less fortunate than us would be willing to give so much of themselves. There were mixed ethnicities and backgrounds studying at the school; some were refugees from Iraq, Palestine or Africa. Others came from poor families in Comoros or Turkey and just wanted to learn Arabic to be able to lead a better life in Syria or to learn about their faith. We would eat dinner composed of only cheap rice and beans, made with cheap butter, given only in small quantities. Yet mealtime was a time for everyone to gather, socialize, laugh, talk, and enjoy each other’s company. We would wash all the dishes after and go back to studying. It was a radically different lifestyle than we lived, but it was not any less happy. On the contrary, I would say those students we met were even happier than most people I see in California.
Every few days we would take a trip to a local cyber café to check emails, Facebook, etc. It was amazing how much longer the day seemed over there without access to the computer and the internet. Life slowed down, and everything was simpler and less stressful.
On weekends we would live in a completely different world. Our families lived in a much, much nicer area of the city. The fancy apartments or huge mansions that we would visit each seemed to out due each other, in terms of architectural appeal and impressiveness. We would go to fancy restaurants, visit gorgeous, scenic areas and take trips to Latakia, Jawlan Hot Springs, Mt. Quasyume, or plush farmlands. We swam in massive swimming pools, visited amusement parks, and played games at the houses for relatives or friends we made.
Yet all of that did not matter. The school had opened my eyes to a new beauty, the beauty of simplicity, of calmness. The appeal of material possessions or the satisfaction of appeasing desires faded away. Living the simple life with genuine people was the real treat. My parents realized that something had changed when I finally came home. The couldn’t tell what it was, but I knew. I had gained a new appreciation for life from a perspective I could have only gotten through traveling.
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