Throughout my travels, every place I’ve visited has touched me in some way, making my explorations a constant transformation of who I am and how I perceive the incredible world that surrounds me. This is a list of five cities and what they taught me about life. Although some of my descriptions may seem like generalizations, and honestly may be so, what I’ve written is an attempt to put into words the life lessons I’ve taken away from these unforgettable places.
So, in no particular order, here we go!
1. New York City
Having completed my freshman year of college in the city with some time to reflect upon the experience, I can say that New York has made an indelible mark on who I am as a person. Moving into the city, the single song that was played endlessly at welcome week events was “Empire State Of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Of course, the world knows the Great Apple to be the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothin’ you can’t do.” And yet, I was skeptical. Because beneath every supposed silver lining is a much less appealing truth. Initially, adjusting to life in the city was a bit difficult. I knew coming in that this wasn’t going to be the traditional college experience with expansive lawns (well, except for the greatest one ever in Central Park) and a true sense of “community”. I was quickly hit with the harsh reality that in the city that houses over eight million people, life goes goes on. At first, I approached this realization with a fearfully negative mindset. I was only eighteen years old and needed a support blanket to cushion my growth over the next four years. But with time, the apprehension of a city that wouldn’t wait for me to grip my bearings transformed into something incredible. In New York, you don’t march to the metronome of the majority. You live and dream at your own pace because nobody is dictating what you do and how you do it. The one thing this city has taught me more than anything else is that if you have dreams, there’s a way here to make them come true. Because when you’re dancing to your own beat in life, it doesn’t matter how fast the world around you moves because. If anything, it’s tremendously empowering.
2. Rio de Janeiro
If there is one place that has completely altered the way I perceive life on a day-to-day basis, it is Rio. I learned here that no matter how one-dimensional something may appear, there is always a hidden soul beneath is surface. The luxury beach lifestyle that defines the city to most of the world is exactly what a tourist experiences when they step foot onto Brazilian soil. There is little reason to venture outside this bubble of beauty and pleasure. But a spontaneous decision to do a tour of Rio’s favelas completely shattered my previous acceptance of surface level understandings. Rio had a troubling, difficult life that roared beneath its deceptive exterior. A life subdued to the public by the utopia the city is often marketed as. After witnessing the poverty that plagued millions in the City of God, I could never see the beaches, luxury, and beauty of the place in the same light. Yes, they undoubtedly existed. But they were also misleading illusions that tried to trap a city of emotional and historic depth into superficial characterizations. Rio de Janeiro taught me that there is always another meaning. One that we can find if we just make a conscious effort to look just a little more.
Tokyo taught me that serenity can exist in chaos. Even on a weekday morning in a crowded subway station, the commuters on their way to work weren’t rushing. Or maybe they were, but their faces seemed at ease. The stark contrast between the way the Japanese approached life in the city compared to New Yorkers was jarring (this is in no way to condemn the New York lifestyle, which I absolutely love. It’s simple to notice how two cultures in similar environments can approach life so differently). Although clichéd, thisphrase best describes what Tokyo embodies: life is made in the journey, not in the destination. The effort made to savor life in between Point A and B means more to people than getting to wherever they have to be. The ultimate destination is subsidiary to everything there is to cherish on the way there. We hear that this is the way to live life all the time. But it’s easy to ignore until we see enough people following that philosophy. Tokyo made me feel at peace while still embracing its identity as one of the biggest metropolitan zones on the planet. And for any city to do that is just an incredible statement on the humanity that inhabits it.
3 & 4. Amsterdam and Rome
European lifestyle in general has been a very compelling testament for the need to love life. From the North Sea to the Mediterranean, so much of what I’ve encountered in Europe has been framed by a willingness to just be happy. But this ethos was especially captured in my visits to Amsterdam and Rome. The former city is probably the most powerful attestation of the tried but true philosophy “carpe diem”. There was this universal need to juice every moment of life to its ultimate capacity, and when that had been done, to find more. It was one of the only trips I’ve been on where I felt the same leaving and coming back to my hotel everyday: content and smiling because the people around me just loved life so much. I experienced a very similar approach to living in Rome. On our daily strolls through the streets of the marvelous Italian capital, I saw business executives taking lunchtime naps at roadside cafés after a cappuccino or gelato. I saw people searching for love and people living the love they had found. I saw more people laughing than I had seen in any other city I’d visited (alongside Amsterdam). Both Amsterdam and Rome to me epitomize that you’ve only got one life and there’s no point in putting off living it.
5. Hong Kong
To this day, Hong Kong ends up battling with a changing set of others for the number one spot on my list of favorite cities. Why? Because Hong Kong represents how commercialization doesn’t have to entail a loss of beauty in humanity. Despite the massive corporate presence that makes the city one of the most densely populated places in the world, walking through the streets of Hong Kong is a wholly different experience than walking through New York or any other city that acts as a significant commercial hub. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Hong Kong multiple times, and each time my plane scrapes the runway and I walk into the city streets, I feel a tremendous sense of belonging. There is a natural beauty and spiritual thread that unites all of Hong Kong in an almost inconceivable sense considering the financial and social stratification of the city. Yet, no matter where you are in Hong Kong, there is this inspiring kinship that seems to bind together the people and landmarks of the Fragrant Harbor (the meaning of Hong Kong). We are able to see the fascinating spirit of life trump over the dollar sign. Something I will never forget is driving down from the Victoria Peak in a light drizzle as all of the New Year’s Eve lights came twinkling on in the city. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of “togetherness”, one that is foreign to many city-going experiences.