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Alicia's Back--Mellowed, Matured and With a Lifetime's Worth of Memories


Alicia's back! For those who don't know what I'm talking about, Alicia Dunams is the 23-year-old I've been tracking (via e-mail) on an eight-month solo trip around the world. She left last August with a 30-pound backpack, an around-the-world plane ticket, about $7,000 in travelers' checks and cash and plans to crew on a yacht in the Cook Islands, trek in Nepal and ride a bicycle across Ireland.

She never made it to Ireland and cut short her trip by several months because, just as she was leaving, her brother and his wife announced that they were going to have a baby. But she did visit 19 countries in all, including India, Nepal and Fiji (where she fell for a fellow traveler from England, only to fall out of love when she visited him in London over Christmas). She came home with $200, hundreds of photos, a lifetime of experiences and a new sense of self--because she is not exactly the same wide-eyed young woman I met in L.A. before she left. Here are some of the things she told me in her last e-mail and over lunch in Los Angeles several weeks ago.

Alicia Dunams: My arms and legs are more muscular from working on the boat and trekking in Nepal, but I also wonder how my true core has changed. One friend described my maturation rate as accelerated, that I'd lived three years in the span of eight months. Other people think I'm more mellow. I feel different, but still the same. I see myself as more self-reliant and independent. Figuratively speaking, my eyes are a lot bigger because of this trip.

She loved Nepal, the South Pacific and Morocco above all, felt homesick in Australia, and hit bottom at the end of her trip in Denmark.

A.D.: After eight months on the road, I just wanted to go home and (I never thought I'd say this) settle down. Even though I loved the nomadic lifestyle, I was sick of the things that went along with it, like not being able to take regular showers or wear clean clothes. I was having a wonderful time in Denmark, but one morning I woke up extremely homesick. So I bought a ticket to fly straight to England, skipping Holland and Belgium, and after spending two days in London, flew out again standby to San Francisco.

When you're away, life goes on at home, and you're not a part of it. Long-haul travelers must choose between the two, missing out but reaping benefits either way.

A.D.: My experiences were slowly slipping into the past tense. Sometimes I wondered whether pictures and memories would be enough to keep it all fresh in my mind. On my trip, I felt I'd entered a suspended reality or been abducted by aliens--because when you get home it's as if you arrive on the same day you left. You can't explain to people what happened because they can't understand or relate. You feel like a different person, but you don't really know exactly what changes have taken place.

But alien analogy aside, I have such positive and overwhelming feelings of accomplishment. I have done something other people spend their lives dreaming about. Something that seems, in retrospect, vast, incomprehensible and downright scary. Before leaving, I remember having nightmares about all the things that could happen to me: being sold into slavery, raped or killed. Nothing happened, thank God. On my return, my brother said, "Alicia, you don't look like a very intimidating girl. How did you do it? Did you feel safe?"

I just told him you have to trust humanity. That may sound crazy, because in this world we are taught not to do so. But sometimes that was all I had. I was not in control of my life at times during my travels. For instance, arriving in the middle of the night in Bern, Switzerland, I walked 10 minutes to the only youth hostel in the city, to find it closed for winter break. With nowhere to turn, I went back to the woman who'd given me directions in the first place and asked her for help. She ended up calling another guest house and dropping me off there in her car.

Alicia grew savvy enough as a traveler to know the difference between trusting people and taking stupid risks. She also found that, as a woman of mixed race, she fared particularly well in the third world. She's half black, half white, with a lovely but hard-to-place exotic look that made people from Vanuatu to Morocco assume she was a local and treat her with some respect. But she was occasionally horrified to find fellow travelers from developed countries such as Canada and England extremely critical of the U.S., partly for political reasons and partly because they hate the way the world is becoming Americanized. I've experienced this, too, especially when traveling on a budget, but haven't failed to note that the same people who gripe eat at McDonald's as far afield as Beijing.

Nonetheless, Alicia reports that she made plenty of fast friends.

A.D.: In Tarifa, Spain, the day before I left for Morocco, I overheard an Irish girl speaking in broken Spanish to the hotel receptionist. Being the bold person I am, I asked if she was going to Morocco. She said yes, even though she was scared to travel alone. At the ferry station, we met a guy from New York and convinced him to come along. I couldn't have asked for better mates. All three of us traveled for four days to Tangier, Marrakech and into the Sahara, and then the Irish girl and I went up the coast to Essaouira, Casablanca and back to Spain. She's planning to visit me in California this summer.

Back in L.A., Alicia's not sure what to do next. Friends who graduated with her from UCLA last year have jobs, apartments and secure lives. But I'm not worried about her a bit, because I don't know anyone more likely to always land on her feet.

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