Fine Folks//Creative Callings: Allison Kooser, World Traveler

Allison at the Great Wall of China.

Allison at the Great Wall of China.

Happy Monday! I'm WAY pumped to share the second edition of my series Fine Folks//Creative Callings with you all. Allison Kooser and I first connected during our freshman year at Davidson College when I was basically adopted by her freshman hall (First Watts forever!), and grew closer as Lilly Foundation ministry fellows when we interned at churches and explored our vocational callings. Allison has always inspired me, whether it's her smarts, her ability to connect with people, her openness to new experiences, her commitment to authenticity, or her Christian faith. And now she's inspiring me even more by combining all of those traits and taking an eight-month trek around the world. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Allison a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta and asked if she'd be willing to share some of her experiences halfway through her journey. I hope you appreciate her reflections as much as I did! (She's a really good writer, too.) Check out Allison's route here, and her blog here.

Ever since I've known you (nearly 10 years!), you've seemed to be an adventurer. Do you remember what first made you love travel? 

Well first of all, crazy that we've known each other ten years. That is wild!

In many ways, I feel like I was born to travel. While I was growing up, my dad was launching MBA programs around the world - in Barcelona, Singapore, London, and now Hong Kong (where my parents currently live). Because of his frequent travel, my sister and I were able to see a lot of incredible places, even when we were very young.

I've loved traveling, exploring and adventuring for as long as I can remember - for so many reasons. People. Food. Mountains. Oceans. I love it all. My first trip without my family was a service trip to Reynosa, Mexico when I was 15. I remember that trip distinctly because it made me not only fall more in love with travel, but it also made me fall in love with the developing world, which then shaped my subsequent education and career. I think travel does that - it challenges what we know, shapes who we are becoming and points us in new directions.

You got your MBA at Johns Hopkins and then went to work at Opportunity International in your hometown of Chicago. What is OI, and what type of work did you do with them? Did that increase your love of travel/adventure? 

Opportunity International is a global non-profit organization that addresses many of the big challenges facing those living in extreme poverty - hunger, economic stability, education, health, sanitation, water, job creation - by empowering entrepreneurs and providing financial tools and training. In buzzword language, Opportunity is a microfinance organization - it provides loans, savings, insurance and training to people usually earning less than about $2 a day. With these financial resources, people (usually women) are able to start businesses, create jobs, send their kids to school, provide for their families and transform their communities. And best of all, they pay back the loans so that the whole system is sustainable and can continue to impact more lives. 

Over my nearly four years there, I served in a number of different roles. I managed a nationwide network of volunteers between the ages of 22 and 35 that raised support and awareness for Opportunity (a program called Young Ambassadors for Opportunity - it's super awesome and if you have a chapter in your city, you should totally get involved!). I built online fundraising campaigns. By the time I left Opportunity in December, I was creating or overseeing most of the web content - blog, social media, website, emails, etc. and working on mass fundraising strategy. 

My desire to work at Opportunity came out of my existing love of the developing world. And by working there, I fell more in love with the developing world. It's a dangerous cycle! I was lucky to get to travel all around the U.S. meeting with my volunteers, as well as to Uganda. And I think it's pretty hard to go to East Africa and not fall in love with it! 

What first gave you the idea to travel around the world? 

Allison and me in late 2010, not long after we graduated from college.

Allison and me in late 2010, not long after we graduated from college.

I can actually remember this pretty vividly. It was my junior year of college at Davidson, and I had just returned from a semester abroad in Ecuador. I was having a lot of reverse culture shock and trouble readjusting to life in the U.S., so I was spending a bunch of time researching various travel options online. I read about programs like the World Race, and actually started an application, but it didn't feel like exactly the right fit. 

At one point in my research, I learned about Around the World (RTW) plane tickets. The two major airline networks (One World/American and Star Alliance/United) sell RTW tickets that allow you to string together a series of destinations to circumnavigate the globe. And while I didn't end up using an RTW, that moment was like a light bulb - it was the point where I thought, "Oh! This is a thing! People do this!" Of course, at the time, I was 20 and in college and had no money, but it planted a seed that thankfully waited patiently until I could actually do something about it.

How did you map out your route?

Well, for starters, I spent a good six months (or realistically, seven years) dreaming about the places I'd like to visit. I always keep a mental list of the top ten countries I'd like to see, so those provided a helpful starting point. From there, I tried to string together regions and routes that made sense - and that were easy to get to and from. I had probably three years' worth of travel on the original list, so it took some serious editing to get it down to a list that seemed doable in seven months. 

I had an actual paper map that I used, trying to create a path that seemed realistic. And then I spent a lot of time on Kayak, Expedia, Skyscanner, and eventually with an RTW specialist at Airtreks to nail everything down.

There were a few surprise benefits to the route I chose, too - the biggest of which is that I'm in summer, or summer-ish, weather for the entire year!

You've just started the second half of your trip, most recently arriving in South Africa. Where have you been so far, and what have been your top two or three places/experiences? 

I started the trip in South America in January, with stops in Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Peru. I then headed west, traveling to New Zealand and Australia, before spending the last two months in Asia. I made it to Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, China and South Korea. I stopped in Atlanta last weekend (where I saw you!) for my cousin's wedding, and now I'm in South Africa. I go from here to Kenya, UAE, Greece and Croatia, then work my way through Europe for a couple months. I'm ending the trip in Scandanavia - Norway, Sweden and Iceland. 

The two of us just a couple of weeks ago, reunited in Atlanta for a lunch.

The two of us just a couple of weeks ago, reunited in Atlanta for a lunch.

Choosing favorites is so hard, but I'll try to pick a couple of stand-outs so far. 

My mom met me in New Zealand and we did a road trip up the west coast of the South Island - that was incredible. It's natural beauty unlike anywhere else - every time you turn a corner, you want to stop and take a photo because it is more even more beautiful than before. And that just keeps happening for miles and miles. 

In Japan, I had opportunity to go to Nagano to meet a novice wine maker who is planting his first vineyard. I spent the day learning to plant wine grapes and having pop music singalongs with a couple of high schoolers who were also there helping out. It was one of those moments when you look around and think, "How is this my life? How did I get here?" 

I spent two weeks in the Philippines with an organization called International Care Ministries (ICM), learning more about their work and providing some input on storytelling to their team. On our last day, my friend Haley and I asked if we could go to a slum community and just hang out since we had finished our respective work assignments. Our translator and driver brought us to this seaside community built on stilts and garbage and we spent the day playing with kids and learning about their lives. I was dripping sweat, ankle deep in trash, and overwhelmingly happy. I've been to a lot of outwardly broken places, and every time I'm struck by how much joy I find. How much love and hope and fun. This day was no different - and was one of my favorites of the trip so far. 

Craziest travel transportation story so far? 

Oh gosh. I have two. 

In the Philippines, I was supposed to take a bus from Dumaguete to Bacolod - one side of an island to another. There are two kinds of buses - air conditioned and regular. The aircon buses are nice and fast and easy. But when I arrived at the bus station, the next aircon bus didn't leave for several hours. I was feeling brave, so I opted for the regular bus as long as I could get a window seat. I settled in, and for the next seven hours, I got a full picture of the filipino countryside with my head out of a bus window. My seatmates changed frequently as commuters got on and off, and at one point I looked over and the man next to me had a plastic two liter bottle with him. It looked like it was full of dirt or something. My first thought (sadly) was drugs, but upon looking closer, I realized it was a turtle. In a dirty plastic bottle. And my seat neighbor just stuck the whole thing in his backpack and walked off the bus. I was cracking up. 

My other transportation story is from Chile and Argentina. My friend Melanie was with me and we decided to take the night bus from one country to another to save time and money for a night of lodging. All was going well - we were settled into out seats, Melanie had taken a sleeping pill and we were comfortably resting. Then, at 2 in the morning, we stopped. We hadn't thought about the fact that we were crossing a national border and therefore had to pass through immigration and customs. The drivers woke everyone up, corralled us off the bus, and made us stand in line outside. Melanie was under the fog of melatonin so she was not having it, and both of us were totally confused. I'm pretty fluent in Spanish, but at this moment, we were lost. I kept looking around thinking, "Can someone please explain this to me?!" We didn't know where to go or what to do. At one point they pulled off all of the bags (for customs) and we didn't see ours. This led to another round of, "Please, anyone, what is going on?!" And at 3 in the morning in a non-native language, those conversations go really well. After a couple of hours, everyone made it through, we reloaded the bus and continued on our way. And yes, our bags made it too.

Craziest on-the-ground story so far?

Every day is crazy! 

I've had a lot of really incredible experiences simply by showing up and being willing to try new things. I taught a class on compulsory savings under a big tree on the side of the road in rural Philippines. I befriended a up-and-coming tour guide in Cusco and we spent the next few days driving all over the Peruvian mountains. I went paragliding in Argentina, lucked out with the best day ever at the Great Wall of China, and snorkled on the Great Barrier Reef. I took my mom black water rafting the Waitomo glowworm caves, and I decided to free-climb a waterfall because I thought that I could. I've done occupational therapy with special needs kids in an orphanage and fundraising consulting for several incredible organizations. Just today I spoke to a group of high school missionary kids in Kenya about what college is like in the States. 

Every day is something new. Sometimes it's hard, but it's always awesome. 

I look forward to reading your blog reflections, because you always seem able to connect your adventure across the world with a life lesson or truth that I need to hear back at home (for example, your post on walls when you were at the Great Wall). How has blogging (and Instagram, for that matter) helped you process your experience? 

Writing my blog (however infrequently) has been so good for me. When I started, I wasn't sure what it was going to look like. The most successful travel blogs (and the ones that I use as resources) are the ones that are more how-to guide than anything else. "How to Plan a Trip to Machu Picchu," "The Five Best Meals in Lima," things like that. I realized pretty early on that I could write these entries any time - even a year from now when I'm back home. I have the information about how I planned things, and I have notes on almost everything, so they would just need to be turned into posts. I hope I have the discipline to do it! 

So instead of writing these types of entries, I started writing more personal reactions to the experiences I was having. These are the thoughts that I won't be able to recall months or years from now unless I document them. They are physical manifestations of my mental processing. One of the hardest parts of a solo world trip is that you don't have anyone with whom to share the experience. The blog has become an attempt to get some of my stories out there, so that at least I have a conversation starting point with friends that are at home. 

And Instagram has been the biggest surprise of all. I had dreams of blogging regularly, but quickly realized that there just isn't enough time in the day to both experience an exciting life and write about one. So instead, I committed to posting a photo a day (as internet connectivity allows) on Instagram. It's been so fun to highlight the things I'm seeing, and I've taken to writing some of my thoughts in the captions. It lets me share snippets of my story, plus I suppose it lets everyone know I'm alive and well! 

Your Christian faith is a hugely important part of who you are, and I know that plays into everything you do, but I imagine that it must deeply impact your travels, even if only internally (and maybe externally, too!). Can you share how your faith shows up on this journey? Has it changed in any noticeable way? 

My faith is pretty central to everything about me. I could rattle on for ages about what I believe and why, but really everything boils down to the most important commandments: loving God and loving people. What I have found is that it’s really really hard to love someone you don’t know. You have no point of reference, and therefore it makes it nearly impossible to actually care. And it’s really hard to know people if you’ve never met them. So for me, travel has become a way to better know the world so that I can better love the world. That’s what it’s all about.

I was actually just talking to a new friend the other night about what the trip has done to my faith. When I get in a routine (especially a good routine) like the one I was in before I left, I start to think that I have things figured out. This trip has been instrumental in taking the jar of my life and shaking it up – opening my eyes to new perspectives, challenging my assumptions, breaking my heart. Faith isn’t stagnant, so it’s given me the opportunity to learn and grow and redefine what I believe and why. And it’s interesting – the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. It’s taught me to shut my mouth and listen, realizing that I don’t have all the answers and that I can learn so much from people who have been following God through such different circumstances.

And of course, the church is universal and Jesus is alive and at work everywhere. So one amazing part of travel, but really all relationship building, is that you meet other people in completely different circumstances who are loving and praising the same God you are. Sitting in church in the Philippines or South Africa or Peru – the buildings look different, but the God is the same. It’s awesome to get to be a part of worship (formal or informal) around the world.

I guess the last thing I would say is that my personal faith has been hugely important to me internally. Traveling solo gets super lonely, so prayer has shown up in a new and very real way for me. I also started re-reading the Bible all the way through when I began my trip, so that’s been a great routine for me too, especially during a time when most of my routines have been thrown out the window. And Jesus and I have a lot of long conversations when I’m feeling nervous or in danger or sick. We’ve gotten pretty chatty these days.

On a similar note, you've done some service work during your trip. Talk a little bit about your desire to serve while seeing the world, and what organization(s) you've worked with.  

Allison with some of her favorite folks in the Philippines.

Allison with some of her favorite folks in the Philippines.

I think an important starting point is my philosophy on service.

I built a career in nonprofit, I sit on the planning team of a service organization for students (Son Servants, part of Youth Conference Ministries), and I’m generally obsessed with getting people, particularly people in the church, to live out their faith by loving and serving people in their communities and around the world. It’s fair to say that service – particularly international service – has become my thing.

But, I also think it’s really easy for Americans (or Westerners or wealthy, well-educated people) to think that we have all the answers. The danger in that is that when you travel (ESPECIALLY if you are traveling specifically to “serve”), you automatically assume that you are going to help. That you are the one bringing the good stuff with you, and dropping it off in these destitute, needy places.

I think that’s crazy, and honestly dangerous.

I can say with complete confidence that I have learned and received far more than I have given, even when visiting some of the most challenging and broken parts of the world. Everyone has something to offer, and I think that recognizing the innate capacity of people (all people) is where you have to start, no matter what.

Okay, now I’ll get off my soapbox and actually answer your question – yes, I have done some service-related work while I’ve been traveling. But because of my aforementioned philosophy, I’m careful about who I work with and how I work with them.

There are NGOs doing incredible work all over the place. I tend to choose those that have permanent, on-the-ground staff serving particular communities. I don’t want to come in and leave – a blonde-haired, blue-eyed flash that is pointless at best and harmful at worst. I’d rather lend whatever support I can to people who are actually doing the hard work – the work of building relationships and discovering needs and loving people for the long haul. That’s the good stuff.

With regard to the work that I’ve been doing, I’ve been trying to use my professional expertise to lend a hand when I can. And I try to not do work that local folks could do instead (might as well create a job and pay someone, right?). Most of all, I’ve been trying to learn about these awesome people and projects. Because my career has been built in nonprofit storytelling and fundraising, I’ve done a few consulting-type projects for organizations who want to rethink their communication strategies and try out some new fundraising tactics, and a few hands-on writing projects for others. It’s been so fun to brainstorm with the local teams and figure out how to best communicate the amazing work they are doing so that more people like you can hear about them!

To that end (and yes, this is a shameless plug), here are some of the great organizations I’ve partnered with or visited so far:

I continue to write for Opportunity International, a microfinance organization empowering women entrepreneurs in 24 countries around the world.

I visited and saw some of the incredible community development work that Camino de Vida is doing in Lima, Peru, including a visit to Padre Martinho orphanage that works with children with special needs.

I spent two weeks in the Philippines with International Care Ministries (ICM), an organization that runs an incredibly comprehensive community development program, including education, business development, health and sanitation and spiritual growth.

My friends in South Africa run an awesome ministry called Ubuntu Football Academy, which uses soccer as a way to reach young boys in local townships. Through athletics, they help the boys finish high school, and learn valuable life skills – and they learn about Jesus and benefit from adult role models. I spent a week hanging out with the boys and I LOVE the work they are doing!

Also while in South Africa, my friend Cathy took me to visit Ikhaya Lethemba in the Imazami Yethu township. This “after-care” facility provides a safe place to local kids, many of whom are the heads of their households after being orphaned by AIDS. The center offers homework help, life skills training and much-needed encouragement. I got to meet a handful of the original students who have just graduated form high school. They are now back learning to bake bread and planning to open their own bakery!

I know that answer was insanely long, but this is the kind of stuff I love!

You'll finish up your trip in August and plan to return to Chicago. What are you most nervous about, and what are you most excited about in terms of that transition?

The thing people don’t tell you about travel – especially travel to the developing world – is that coming home is horrible. And this is coming from someone who loves home. I have an incredible tribe of friends that I miss so much and cannot wait to see – they are what I’m most excited for, no doubt. But I also know that I have a lot of trouble with reverse culture shock.

It’s not so much the “whoa, we have so many types of cereal in our grocery store” shock anymore – I’ve come and gone enough to know that that is just part of the deal.

I think part of the struggle is that it is impossible to explain my experiences to anyone. I try, by writing and posting and sharing stories as I go, but the truth of it is that I’m going to go home and very few people will want to sit and listen to me rattle on about the trip. They’ll want the sound bites – and rightfully so. It’s just too much to communicate. And so you sit there having experienced something so life-changing and having to process it solo. It’s a really tough thing.

The other hard thing for me is that life is so different on the road. Every single day is an adventure and new and crazy. Home is wonderful and routine has its own amazing merits, but for me, switching from one to the other is like throwing a car into park while it’s still moving. It’s disorienting and can hurt.

Because I know this about myself, I’ve been trying to be more intentional this time around in identifying practices that I want to carry home with me. For example, I’ve loved meeting and actually talking with people (as opposed to pleasantries), so I want to get coffee or lunch with someone every week at home. Things like that. I’m hoping they’ll help the transition go more smoothly.

And I guess the last important thing about the home transition is that I’m currently working on a new, exciting adventure that will hopefully start taking shape right around when I return to Chicago this summer. I don’t have details to share yet, but having a new project is making the thought of going home really exciting in its own right! 

And now something really important: Best/worst/weirdest food experience.

Mmmm food. I’ve been doing a lot of that. Important fact #1 – I eat ice cream everywhere and it’s all good.

Best? I mean, ramen in Japan is insane, peking duck in Beijing, senagong in the Philippines, lomo saltado in Peru. All the local star dishes have been amazing. But I’ll choose something more random. My friend Melanie and I were exploring Santiago, Chile and I don’t know if we were really hungry or what, but we found this place called Buffalo Waffle and fell in love. It’s a little store front and they serve savory waffles – waffles filled with chicken and cheese and garlic sauce, stuff like that. And whoa. I can’t even explain it. We were in heaven. We actually went back again a few hours later for round two.

I don’t think I really have a worst, though eating Korean BBQ alone was a low point and hilarious because everyone in the restaurant felt bad for me. I didn’t even care, the food was so good.

Weirdest on this trip is definitely bird’s nest, which is a Taiwanese delicacy made from congealed bird saliva. It’s served as these cold little strings and it comes in a dish of almond milk. It actually tastes okay, but I couldn’t get past my mind knowing what it was. I had a brief moment in the Philippines where I thought I was going to have to eat balut (duck fetus still in the egg), but thankfully, I got out of that one!

Thanks so much to Allison for diving into these questions in the midst of the Africa portion of her journey. Check out her ongoing adventures at!