20 Years of Travel #19: Chernobyl

_DSC5065The 20 Years of Travel series continues with our day trip to Chernobyl in Ukraine. If there was any trip my husband and I have taken where people ask the question “Why?”, it would be our trip to Chernobyl in 2016. The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl happened on April 25-26, 1986, when I was a little kid. When my husband and I heard that they were opening the13770367_267208830320350_1063754274685798828_n areas around the reactor for visitors almost 25 years later, we immediately put it on our list of places to visit. We were definitely interested in learning more about the accident and the reactor first hand. However, there is something unique and a bit post-apocalyptic about seeing towns that have been completely deserted and as a result have remained completely the same for the last 25 years. The only differences are that grass and weeds are overgrown everywhere and the buildings are rundown. When the people evacuated these towns after the accident, they were all under the impression that they would get to return to their homes in a week or so. However, as most of us know, that did not happen. Even the carnival rides from the fair that was being held in Prypyat during the time of the accident continue to hauntingly remain standing and abandoned.

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Journey to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone:
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is safe! It would not be open to public tours if it wasn’t. Actually, you are also allowed to stay overnight in the Exclusion Zone, however, due to time constraints, we decided just to take the one-day Chernobyl Tour that leaves from Kiev early in the morning. The drive to the Dytyatky checkpoint into the Exclusion Zone takes a couple of hours, so you have a chance to nap in the car or watch the Chernobyl documentary that they put on the television for us. This documentary was amazing, and I really wish I had written down the title of it. It gave an overview of what led up to the explosion, including power failures during testing. I think the most shocking part of this documentary for me, as I was very young when this disaster occurred so knew little about it, was the cover-up that occurred after the explosion. As this was a Soviet nuclear power plant, they tried to keep this incident a secret from the international community and even from their own people. Many individuals in the nearby town of Pripyat felt the explosion in the middle of the night. As firefighters were risking their lives, trying to contain the explosion, people in Pripyat were told to continue with their daily activities and enjoy the carnival that was in town, while fumes and smoke spread through the city. More than 24 hours later, they finally decided to start evacuating nearby towns. The international community became aware of the situation, when Sweden started detecting high radiation levels. If Sweden was detecting high radiation levels, just imagine the radiation levels in the towns near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

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Geiger counter & Homes:
Once in the Exclusion Zone, we started visiting some of the towns that were abandoned. _DSC5173To get a clear idea of the vast impact of the Chernobyl catastrophe, the picture above is a memorial to all the towns that were affected by radiation and had to be evacuated. When we exited our vehicle, our guides gave us individual Geiger counters (see picture on the right) to be able to track radiation levels. The Geiger counters were sound an alarm if radiation levels were above 2.0 mSv’s. I think I saw our Geiger counter hit 4.0 at one point. However, even when the alarm sounds, the radiation levels are not harmful. Basically we were just given our yearly dose of radiation in one day. We first started visiting some of the abandoned homes (see pictures below).

Abandoned Community Facilities
We also visited some community buildings including a local school, gymnasium and public pool (see pictures below).

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Duga-1:
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built this missile defense system, which was designed to detect the launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles. This structure, located only a few kilometers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, was irradiated during the Chernobyl disaster but remains standing, as all the valuable metal has been contaminated and the surrounding sand too. Since it can’t be knocked over without releasing dangerous amounts of radiation, it’s one of the few remaining Soviet missile radars still standing in the former Soviet Union.

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Pripyat Carnival:
The nearest town to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was Pripyat. The town of approximately 50,000 people were enjoying a carnival that was in town when the explosion happened. The carnival rides are still standing (see pictures below).

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The Reactor:
Less than a month after the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, a cover was designed, called the Sarcophagus, to go over the reactor to contain the radiation. The Sarcophagus was only designed to be a useful cover for 20-30 years, so work was done to build the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement (aka the Arch). This Arch would cost billions of dollars and be constructed next to the reactor. We got to view the reactor with the Sarcophagus and the Arch next to it from a safe distance (see picture below). In 2017, a year after our visit, the Arch was moved over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant as a more permanent containment system.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was one of the most interesting places we have ever explored. We have never seen so many abandoned towns. The expansive reach of such a tragedy was astounding. It was quite a haunting and somewhat unnerving site to behold. We would definitely recommend visiting this area if you are ever in Ukraine.

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

20 Years of Travel #18: Paris

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues by featuring the City of Love: Paris, France. I grew up watching old movies that were set in Paris: An American in Paris, Funny Face, Gigi, and many more. I dreamed of seeing this amazing city. I went for the first time in 2006. I was a bit disappointed with Paris at that time. I can now say that my disappointment was almost completely due to lack of planning on my part. I was traveling to Paris with a classmate of mine after we finished a graduate course in Geneva, Switzerland. As students, we had a tight travel budget. I was able to get a discount on a hotel in Paris through my job at home, but that unfortunately was located on the outskirts of the city. It ended up costing a lot of money and time to travel into the city center. We also were visiting in the middle of the summer tourist season and 100 degree heat. We waited in the heat for hours to get into Notre Dame (pictured above), which was worth it, but unpleasant. My most amateur mistake was waiting until our final day in Paris to go to the Louvre, which was a Tuesday, the day that the Louvre is closed. We decided to go visit Versailles instead, which was impressive but was under renovation and none of the fountains were turned on.

Luckily, almost ten years later, I decided to give Paris another try. I had a much better experience. We stayed in the city center, smallest hotel room ever, but worth it for the location. We also went in the middle of December which in my opinion is the best time to see Paris. There are minimal tourists and beautiful Christmas markets everywhere. I believe there is also a lot to be said about experiencing the same city at different points in one’s life as well.

Things to do and see:

Champs Elysees

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The Champs Elysees is one of the most famous avenues in the world, leading to the Arc de Triomphe.

Roue de Paris

This is a large ferris wheel off of the Champs Elysees, where you can experience amazing views of Paris.

The Seine

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There are walkways along the Seine, where you can take romantic strolls with views of the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower

Of course you have to explore the Eiffel Tower. My friends and I went up to the top at sunset for the amazing views and then decided to walk down, which wasn’t as strenuous as I thought it would be. I only had a problem with my little fear of heights and the fact that you could feel the tower sway a bit.

Notre Dame Cathedral

This is the famous gothic-style cathedral in Paris. If you have an opportunity, do the gargoyle tour as well as exploring the inside of the cathedral.

Favorite Bookstore

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If you are a booklover like me, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore is a must!

The Louvre

This amazing art museum did not allude me on my second visit to Paris. December is a much better time to visit this museum anyway. I was there at opening time and got to stand alone in front of the Mona Lisa for twenty minutes.

Musee d’Orsay

Musee d'Orsay Collection

This is my favorite art museum in Paris as I love all things Degas, Renoir and Monet. The above picture shows just a few of my favorites.

Christmas Markets

If you find yourself in Paris around Christmastime, you can experience a plethora of amazing Christmas markets that are set up all over the city.

Sights I Still Want to See

Two trips to Paris were not enough to see everything I wanted to. I still have not gone to Sacre Couer and the catacombs. Hence, why they are not featured here. Those will just have to wait until my next visit.

Day Excursions:

Versailles

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Less than a hour train ride from Paris is the Palace of Versailles. Not only is Versailles featured prominently in history, but it contains beautiful art and expansive gardens. Many of my husband’s pictures are featured above as he recently got to see Versailles with minimal renovations and working fountains, unlike my original visit to Versailles.

Rouen

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Less than a two-hour train ride from Paris, Rouen is an idyllic French town. We visited because of our interest in Joan of Arc, but there was so much more to this town. Definitely one of my favorite places.

Excursion I Still Want to Make

As mentioned before, I really love Monet paintings. Monet’s home and where he found some of his inspiration is located less than an hour from Paris in the town of Giverny.

If you are looking for more excursions into Normandy from Paris, see my Normandy link below.

Related Posts:

PARIS, FRANCE (December 2013)

Normandy, France – October 2014

I am sure Paris and I will meet again soon!

Happy Travels!!!

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20 Years of Travel #17: The Balkans

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with my undergraduate study abroad program to the Balkans in 2002. I am sure that everyone experiences moments that change their lives. The Peace and Conflict Resolution program I took through American University that took me to the Balkans literally changed my life.

As silly as this seems to talk about, years later, I went through a rough patch in 2002, as I got my heart completely shattered when a boyfriend and I broke up. The 2-year relationship ended almost as poorly as it could. I was struggling so much and didn’t even know if I wanted to continue with school, when I was accepted into this program at American University. I now had this intensive educational program to focus on, which left me little time to think about my broken relationship. As part of this research program, we were heading to the Balkans, which was still recovering from the Balkan War of the 1990s.

*Side note – all pictures featured in this post have been scanned from physical photos taken with an old film camera that I was using in 2002.*

HUNGARY

Our tour of the Balkans included a very intense travel schedule, so our professor arranged to begin the trip with a weekend in Budapest (to overcome jetlag) and end the trip with a weekend in Vienna (before heading back to the States). This is now a trick I try to incorporate in as many travel experiences as I can – making sure you allow some free time at the beginning and at the end, especially when you are taking adventure trips and tours. While we were suffering from jetlag, we did get to experience some fun things in Budapest, like the market, the parliament building, a Hungarian opera, amazing food and a beautiful, early-morning walk to and from attending a church service at Matthias Church (Mátyás-templom).

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SERBIA

Our home base for much of our time in the Balkans was in Belgrade, Serbia. Belgrade was bombed by NATO in 1999. Three years later it was still recovering and rebuilding. It was my first experience actually seeing the structural effects of war, so of course I wanted to document that with my camera, which I found out quickly was illegal. In Belgrade, we would learn about the steps the former-Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro – at that time) was taking to change their system of government from a socialist one to a democracy. This transition would take years. Occasionally, we would take trips outside of the city to meet with human rights groups and religious leaders to discuss the effects the war had on society and religion in Serbia.

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MONTENEGRO

At this time, Montenegro would still be part of the former-Yugoslavia with Serbia. They would not gain their independence until 2006. While traveling through Montenegro, I remember thinking that it was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. It was hard to imagine that horrible things were taking place there just a few years before. While in Montenegro, we stayed at a large orphanage that housed many kids who had lost their families in the war. It was heartbreaking, but through these kids, you could also see hope and a promise of a better future.

CROATIA

We traveled to Croatia a few times. We took one such day trip to Zagreb and Vukovar from Belgrade. This was one of the most intense travel days I had ever experienced. On the way into Croatia, the bus driver was trying to accommodate our need to use bathroom facilities by just pulling over on the side of the road. Normally, if I had to go bad enough, that might be sufficient for me. However, the location did not seem like aserbia great idea, as I came face to face with my first mine field (see picture on the right). Demining operations are still ongoing in parts of the Balkans. We spoke to some officials in Zagreb about Croatia gaining its independence from Yugoslavia and what their goals as an independent nation were. Then headed to see Vukovar, which was completely destroyed during the war. The city was under siege for almost three months straight. Its residents had to flee and thousands died. All the structures were just covered in bullet holes. We headed back to Belgrade after this but were stopped at the Serbian border. Border crossings were still pretty strict at this time, and they frowned upon multiple crossings in one day, which we were doing. After keeping us there for hours, holding on to our passports the whole time, we were able to monetarily bribe our way back into Serbia. That would be our only time doing multiple border crossings in the same day. Our next trip to Croatia would take us to the coastal town of Dubrovnik, long before it was made famous by Game of Thrones. Here we met with a women’s group who would make by hand items like purses, scarves and sweaters to be sold. These items would go directly to support women and their families who have lost husbands and fathers in the war. Meeting these women who had lost so much, trying to do whatever they could to support their families, impacted me so much. Later that day, one of our guides, from Bosnia, who had been with us the whole time, told us his story of living through the siege of Sarajevo. That story will stick with me for the rest of my life. That evening, a group of us sat watching the sunset over the Adriatic talking of different psychological topics, when we started talking about relating to people by reading people. I didn’t quite buy into the concept of reading people, because I did not believe that people could be that readable. I asked someone to read me. That same guide from Sarajevo decided to take on that task and told me that I had fallen in love with the wrong person but would get over it. I had not told anyone anything about my life or relationships, so this completely threw me. This was the moment my life changed. I realized that my broken heart was so insignificant compared to what so many people in the Balkans were going through. For the first time, I started to think about my future goals and what I could do to help others. It was not just that he had seen my hurt and pain, but that he had seen a strength I possessed that I did not know I had.

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SLOVENIA

We would take a cruise along the stunning Croatian coast and head to Slovenia. Slovenia was the first country to declare its independence from Yugoslavia. It had also managed to, for the most part, stay out of the war. We took a short trip here exploring caves, Lake Bled and spending a night in Ljubljana before heading to Vienna for our last few days in Europe.

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AUSTRIA

By the time we made it to Vienna, Austria, I was exhausted both physically and emotionally. This had been one of the most intense and moving experiences of my life. While in Vienna, my mind was on everything we had just learned, seen and experienced, and where I would go from there. I barely remember going to St. Stephen’s Cathedral or the Secession Building that housed contemporary art. Luckily, I got to revisit Vienna a few years later.

Vienna

This tour through the Balkans was one of the best travel experiences of my life. I believe that every trip should be an educational one, whether you are learning about the culture of the location or even just learning how to travel. This was more than an educational experience, it was literally life-changing, and that is why it made my list of 20 favorite travel experiences.

Location-related posts:

BUDAPEST AT NIGHT (November 2015); The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Christmas – Budapest, Hungary (November 2015)20 Years of Travel #13: Mediterranean Cruise

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!!

20 Years of Travel #1: German Class Trip

Per my last post, I am celebrating 20 years of travel by writing about my top 20 travel destinations over the last 20 years. It seems fitting that I would start with my first oversees travel experience.

In July of 1998, I got to go on a trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy with my high school German class. While that was 20 years ago, I’m going to list the places and events from this trip that I remember most. Enjoy a look at these places through the eyes of a sixteen year old (including pictures taken with disposable cameras):

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Cities visited in order of the Itinerary (see picture above):

  1. Frankfurt, Germany
    • To overcome jet lag, our teacher/tour leader signed us up for a Rhine River boat tour with a wine tasting. That may have been my first taste of wine. Lesson learned: drinking wine might not be the best way to overcome jet lag.
  2. Rothenberg, Germany
    • What I always pictured a European town to look like.
    • Largest Christmas store I’ve ever seen.
  3. Munich, Germany20180604_214421
    • Seeing a 1998 World Cup Soccer game on a big screen in the main square
    • We stumbled across a large crowd of people outside Planet Hollywood. I sat on my friend’s shoulders for 45 minutes. We had know idea what was going on. Eventually, we realized that this crowd was waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He threw me a t-shirt that I actually still have.
    • My teacher bought us giant mugs of beer at the Hofbrauhaus.
    • The Glöckenspiel. – Munich was one of my favorite places, and I would finally revisit it 18 years later.
  4. Berchtesgaden, Germany
    • Saw my first mountains as we headed in to the Alps.
    • We all had a snowball fight in July.
  5. Salzburg, Austria
    • Obviously the birth place of Mozart, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the Sound of Music. We took a Sound of Music walking tour, which I thought was perfect as I was “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”.
  6. Lake Maggiore, Italy
    • The lake district of Northern Italy is just gorgeous. We stopped on Isola Bella and toured the stunning Palazzo Borromee.
  7. Innsbruck, Austria
    • I was unimpressed with Innsbruck. It was a brief stop anyway.
  8. St. Moritz, Switzerland
    • My first of many European train rides. The train from St. Moritz to Tirano, Italy has the best views (see picture above).
  9. Lugano, Switzerland20180604_212955
    • With some allotted free time, a few friends and I rented a speed boat on Lake Lugano. See pic on the right of me driving the boat. My friends and I also got into a lot of trouble for this, because we missed our curfew, and apparently everyone was looking everywhere for us. However, I have no regrets. It was amazing…just sitting in the boat with the wind blowing your hair and looking at the mountains coming out of lake. It was the most memorable moment of the trip for me.
    • While Lugano holds a special place in my heart for the enjoyable boating experience, I have not returned, which may have something to do with the cockroach infested accommodations we stayed at while we were there. Insects everywhere…in the shower, in the beds….
  10. Zermatt, Switzerland
    • It is pretty remarkable that my first experience with mountains also included viewing the Matterhorn (see picture at the top of the page). We took a train to a higher elevation to view it. Then some of us walked back down to the town of Zermatt, which was just a beautiful little Swiss town. I loved it there.
  11. Gruyere, Switzerland
    • CHEESE!!!!
  12. Lucerne, Switzerland
    • Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) – I remembered seeing this bridge in picture albums my Grandmother had, and it was really amazing to be able to see it in person.
  13. Heidelberg, Germany
    • I vaguely remember a boat ride, but I think I was so exhausted by the end of this tour that I have little recollection of doing anything in Heidelberg.

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Since this trip almost 20 years ago, I’ve been back to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland many times and lived in Italy for a few years, so this area of the world has always meant so much to mean. While this trip was not the beginning of my love of world travel, it was the beginning of making world travel a reality and a way of life for me.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane with me. Next post on the 20 Years of Travel series will be a location a bit closer to home.

20 Years of Travel

Travel

2018 is a special year for me, as I celebrate 20 years of travel. Traveling is something that has been important to me since I was very young (see my post Why I Travel). I think I was always meant to be “a goer,” as my mother-in-law calls it. 20 years ago this summer, I had an amazing opportunity to go abroad for the first time with my high school German class. Since then, my travels have taken me to 38 countries on 5 continents.

To celebrate my last 20 years of travel, I will be posting my top 20 favorite travel locations and experiences from now until August 31, 2018. To receive updates on these travel posts, please use the side bar options on the home page to follow this blog or follow the Facebook page.

It is only fitting that my next post will be about that infamous first trip abroad, so stay tuned and HAPPY TRAVELS!

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2018 Passport Reading Challenge

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I’ve chosen to read a book about the following places:

  1. China: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
  2. Egypt: Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
  3. Gibraltar: A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear
  4. Haiti: The Boiling Season by Christopher Hebert
  5. Ireland: The Dubliners by James Joyce
  6. Liechtenstein: Escape to Liechtenstein by Ed Dunlap
  7. Montenegro: The Devil’s Own by Sandra Brown
  8. Portugal: The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

 

Why I Travel

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For years I have been asked in many different ways by many different people the following question: “Why do you Travel so much?” This question always takes me down memory lane a bit, and there is by no means a quick answer.

I would not say that I was born to travel, but instead learned to love traveling. My family took some vacations in the United States when I was growing up, but we did not travel much. I think we were all too busy with work, school, activities, friends, etc. My grandmother and grandfather were the only ones in my family that traveled outside of the United States, that I was aware of. I would spend many hours with my grandmother’s photo albums looking at all her adventures including pictures of my grandfather with a snake wrapped around him in Morocco, my grandmother riding a camel in the Sahara, tulips in bloom in Holland, the sandy beaches of the Cayman Islands, the white Cliffs of Moher and Passion week in Oberammergau. I always thought I would love to see those places and have those experiences.

It wasn’t until I was sixteen years old that I got my first opportunity to travel abroad. With my parents’ support and some money from my after-school job, I traveled with my high school German class to Europe. While that was quite a while ago now, I will never forget my first wine tasting on the Rhine River, the snowball fight in the Alps in July, the dancing with giant mugs of beer at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, singing “I am Sixteen going on Seventeen” at the Von Trapp house in Salzburg, and renting a speedboat on Lake Lugano (which we did without our chaperones’ knowledge, but it was so worth the punishment we endured afterwards).

While that was a memorable trip, and I was very fortunate to have that experience, my true passion for traveling began in college. My junior year, I spent spring break in London with my college’s theater group. I was not part of the theater group, but I had friends who invited me. I got my first acting course on the stage of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, saw the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, visited one of the most famous addresses in the world (221b Baker Street), saw countless broadway and off broadway shows, and salsa danced with a DJ at a local club. From that moment on I knew that I would never turn down the opportunity to explore more of the world, and I signed up for a study abroad semester the next year.

My semester abroad took me to Belgrade, Serbia, which was at that time still recovering from the Balkan War of the 90s. This was a very different travel experience than what I had been accustomed to before, and it changed my life forever. Traveling was no longer just about visiting museums and other sights, but it was about the people and the different cultures. That was when traveling and exploring the world went from being a fun hobby to being part of who I am. I developed a new found respect for the world and the people of the world.

I signed up for another study abroad course in graduate school that led to more international travel. Then, in 2007, I met the person who would become my husband and permanent travel companion. We have together traveled through 4 continents and visited more than 25 countries.

So over the course of the last two decades, I have developed a passion for travel. I love the adventure, exploring the world, educating myself, and most importantly learning about myself. Through each travel experience I have discovered what kind of person I am, what my interests are, and how to overcome my own personal barriers. I hope that I never stop learning and growing – and that is why I travel.

Travel Destinations I Can’t Wait to See from A-Z

As I continue my trek around the world, I wanted to share some destinations that I am looking forward to seeing/experiencing. Feel free to lend me insight on any of these locations and perhaps share destinations you are looking forward to seeing.

  • A – Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
  • B – Bali (Indonesia)
  • C – Cape Town (South Africa)
  • D – Dublin (Ireland) – visited in 2019
  • E – Easter Island (Chile)
  • F – Fiji
  • G – Great Wall of China
  • H – Hiroshima (Japan)
  • I – Israel – visited in 2017
  • J – Jordan
  • K – Kalahari Desert (Botswana)
  • L – Lisbon (Portugal) – visited in 2015
  • M – Machu Picchu (Peru)
  • N – New Zealand
  • O – Oslo (Norway)
  • P – Pyramids (Egypt)
  • Q – Queensland (Australia)
  • R – Rwanda
  • S – Singapore
  • T – Tibet
  • U – United Arab Emirates – visited in 2016
  • V – Vietnam
  • W – Waikiki Beach (Hawaii, US)
  • X – Xingu (Brazil)
  • Y – Yangtze River (China)
  • Z – Zanzibar (Tanzania)

(If a destination is red, that means I have visited it.)