Does travel define you? Connor Callanan, co-founder of the travel group U.H.S.E (U, He, She, Everyone) shares the travel experience that most "hits home" for him:
"What is your favorite place of all the places that you have been?"
This is the question that seems to be asked every time traveling comes up. I've always found it extremely difficult to answer. Not necessarily because there are so many that are too close to call, but because I’ve come to learn that more than the place itself, it's the experiences you have there that make it what it was. You can have the worst experience in one of the most incredible places just like you can be positively impacted from visiting somewhere that may not be so beautiful. So to me, asking "Which place has had the greatest impact on you?" provokes a more fulfilling story.
In my sophomore year of college, I made the decision to spend my first semester Junior year studying abroad. The journey begins long before you depart. The moment I made the decision and my mind was made up, my life began to change. I always imagined living in a foreign place, learning new ways and diving into new cultures. I felt it was the perfect time in my life to bring those ideas to reality. I was feeling anxious for a while before I made the decision. I felt I wasn’t maximizing my potential. Not that I was doing wrong, I just knew there was so much else out there for me. So much to learn. So much to see. I wanted a major change in my daily routine and University provided this door to another world.
I moved to Galway, Ireland. The semester I spent in Ireland was unbelievable, but that is a story for another time. This story begins with a girl. A girl that I met a few weeks after I arrived in Galway. I was riding my bicycle home and suddenly became curious to find a new way home. I stopped at an intersection to ask where taking a left would lead me. When she spoke I lost focus on what she was saying. I was taken aback by her voice and her accent, it was so new and unfamiliar to me. I immediately interrupted to ask where she was from. “Sardinia, a village called Uta." I had absolutely no idea where that was or what she was talking about, but I acted like I did. The convo ended awkwardly, but I was intrigued. When I got home I googled Sardinia to learn it was an island smack-dab in the middle of the Mediterranean.
A couple weeks passed and I ran into her again. This time at a pub. We exchanged numbers and so it began. We started dating and grew close over the next few months. Everything about her was so different yet we were able to establish this deep connection. When we first began talking I was barely able to understand her English. I remember wondering, "How could it work?" Forming a relationship is difficult when you can barely communicate.
As time went on, her English improved and my Italian did not, but we found ways to communicate. That, to me alone, was mind boggling. She always spoke about Sardinia. She introduced me to new foods, holidays, and beliefs. She was always showing me how different the two of us were raised, and I enjoyed it. It made me question things. We had so much in common, yet our environments were so different. It reminded me how alike we all are as humans. It was seeing with my own eyes how broad and diverse life is. How everyone is on their own journey learning different things, and how that is okay. In fact, it's inspiring.
As the semester came to an end, we began making travel plans. A high school friend and I decided to spend a month and a half exploring Europe. We checked off France, Spain, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and The Netherlands. Those weeks of wandering were some of my best. It felt like a crash course in life, and it was all set to end with a month in Italy. The girl and I booked flights south and eventually out to Sardinia. What made this so different was I was being shown the country by a native. Someone whom I had grown close too. Someone who had waited months to share her home with me.
Italy was unique and beautiful but Sardinia was what I was waiting for. Earlier in the semester I discovered Blue Zones. In fact, she introduced me to the idea. The concept of a Blue Zone was started by Dan Buettner and it describes a demographic and/or geographic area in the world where people live considerably longer lives. There are five of them: Loma-Linda California, The Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica); Icaria (Greece); Okinawa (Japan); and Sardinia (Italy). Buettner teamed up with National Geographic and the world’s best longevity researchers to travel to these places and identify lifestyle characteristics that could lead to longevity.
They found nine specific traits that were common among all the Blue Zone regions. People move naturally and regularly, they have purpose, they take time to downshift and reduce stress each day, they take in smaller portions of a majority plant based diet, they drink wine regularly, they belong to communities and organizations, they keep their loved ones first, and they surround themselves with people who share the same values and goals. When she first told me about her people, and how they lived incredibly long and active lifestyles, I thought she was joking. She always mentioned customs and diets that seemed unusual to me, but I never put two and two together. My whole life I was curious about hidden pockets of paradise that were possibly home to magical secrets. Now that my girlfriend was from one, I became fascinated. I read everything I could find and was hyped to see and experience it first person.
Sardinia is known for its beautiful landscapes. Rugged mountains hug the bluest coastlines. I've been to many beaches, but none as blue as a random patch of Sardinian sand. One of my first memories was driving across an inlet a few miles from her village that was filled with beautiful wild flamingos. I couldn't believe how many of them were just standing there. When we finally made it to her place, her family welcomed me with so much joy. Everything was translated because the rest of the family couldn't speak a word of English, and therefore body language became key. I quickly understood that her father wanted us to sleep on opposite ends of the house.
The biggest difference for me was how organic and natural everything about life in Sardinia was. Almost all of the vegetables and herbs were grown in their backyard. We ate meat only three times in the month that I was there, and each time the meat was delivered by the farmer himself. They owned a car but rode the bicycle or walked nearly everywhere. It was an extremely small town everyone knew everyone. Everything was local. Another thing I noticed was how all the elders lived at home. My girlfriend's grandma was 97 and running around telling stories. She had another aunt who was 95. They had a man in the village who was 105, and had survived cancer twice, and had been hit by a car.
The family all lived within minutes of each other. They each greeted me with a glass of the famous Cannonau wine. They say this Sardinian wine has two to three times the amount of artery-scrubbing flavonoids and antioxidants than any other wine, and we drank it daily with lunch. It was so interesting to see the difference in their diet. Every morning was a light breakfast with some espresso and then a late lunch. Except lunch was huge. After the late lunch, around 1:30 PM to 2:00 PM, everyone relaxed and took a nap into the late afternoon, with another light meal for dinner. I also had the opportunity to try Casu Marzu cheese bought from a local Sardinian shepherd. This has live maggots in it. It was as crazy as it sounds.
We headed inland for a couple days to see some Nuraghis, which are ancient Sardinian homes over 2,000 years old, and to see Mamathunes, an ancient carnival ritual where the whole village dresses up in costumes and parades through the town. The final week was spent at the family’s beach bungalow. We hiked, swam, cliff-jumped, and had homemade pizza. We snorkeled for sea urchins, and bought a wheel of cheese from a man selling out of the back of his truck. The final day we cruised back down the coast to Calgari making pit stops at every beach with the occasional Corona. I packed my bags and said my goodbyes.
I took the train to the airport and in the blink of an eye I was landing back in JFK an entirely different person. I had a beard, a full head of hair, and realized I knew absolutely nothing about the world I was living in. That semester abroad became everything I was looking for. It opened my eyes. Going to Sardinia and experiencing such a unique lifestyle firsthand sparked a flame that has yet to fade. Forming a bond with someone so different from me taught me to view and appreciate people in a new way.
The decision to transport myself outside of my comfort zone set a wheel in motion that has powered me through life thus far. It has helped me evolve as a person. They say traveling leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller. I'm not sure about all that, but if an old man offers you some cheese with worms in it, eat it. You’ll live to 100.
Connor Callanan is one of the voices behind U.H.S.E. His adventures have taken him through much of Europe, Africa, around the United States, and up through the Northern Pacific.
Follow their adventures on U.H.S.E!
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