My time as an undergraduate at Penn ended on May 19th, 2014, with a commencement ceremony and a hurried move-out. In my four years on campus, I had four winter breaks, four spring breaks, four thanksgiving breaks, and three summers, not counting the one immediately following high school. It’s a lot of time in hindsight. One summer was spent on classes, and one was spent on a job at home. My junior year, as per the beaten path, was spent doing a consulting internship in New York.
Now, spending time with family and friends is far from a waste. And preparing yourself for a career—while it shouldn’t consume your every waking neurological function—is a thing that should be done at some point. However, I really enjoy traveling, and upon entering my final semester as an undergraduate, I suddenly found myself with one summer vacation remaining, about a month and a half long, before starting a full-time job with the usual vacation day limitations that make long trips difficult to finagle. I wasn’t sure when I’d next have the opportunity to see the world.
So, I made the rational decision: I’d cram three trips into one. Because time is short and what the hell.
Trip 1: Iceland
This trip was organized by Wharton Leadership Ventures, and it began exactly four days after graduation. After starting in rainy Reykjavik, the northern-most capital city in the world, we hit the Golden Circle, a popular route that includes a national park, the famous Gullfoss waterfall, and a valley of geysers. (Fun fact: The English word “geyser” derives from Iceland’s Geysir, now dormant in the park.) Over the next week, we hiked 35 kilometers through beautiful western Iceland, crossed a frigid river barefoot, attempted to summit an unpronounceable volcano in a snowstorm (Snæfellsjökull, for anyone wondering), went horseback riding on a beach, helped a local rescue team with fundraising strategies, and sampled fermented shark meat. Our final night as a group was spent exploring Reykjavik, a town of a little over 100,000, and the trip concluded with a soothing swim in the Blue Lagoon hot springs. Of my time on the island of rock and water and moss, my favorite memory might’ve been the night we spent mid-hike in a mountain hut, surrounded by no one else and nothing but lakes and rivers and mountains, playing cards and getting to know the wonderful people around me. I stayed an extra night after they left, and the next morning, I boarded a flight for 24 hours of travel to Shanghai.
Trip 2: Asia
One fifteen-minute layover in Oslo, one four-hour layover in Moscow, and one emergency landing in the middle of Russia later (Hello Krasnoyarsk?), I landed in Shanghai to begin my second trip with college friends. My stay in Shanghai included a visit to the Bund, an acrobatics show, visits to Fuxing Park and the Tianzifang marketplace, a walk through the Yuyuan Garden, and a rather painful massage. The last day also featured a trip to one of the world’s tallest observation decks, located at the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center (the one that looks like a bottle opener).
The next stop was the Philippines, where we started with a day on the beach at Boracay that included fire dancing, helmet diving, and a good chance to relax mid-trip. We spent some time in Manila next, touring the historical walls of the city and sampling some of the local cuisine, though I personally decided to pass on the balut. While in Manila, we also decided to find Manny Pacquiao’s house and take pictures boxing, because of course we did.
The planned Asia trip concluded in Macau and Hong Kong. The first night was spent gambling in Macau on blackjack and baccarat, and we took the ferry to Hong Kong the next morning. While there, we checked out Victoria Peak, the Lan Kwai Fong bars, and some Michelin-star soup dumplings across the harbor at Din Tai Fung. We also took the most terrifyingly fast taxi ride I’ve ever experienced, though the driver seemed pretty amused.
The unplanned Asia trip, however, concluded in Japan, where a friend’s 22-hour layover gave us the chance to see Tokyo at a sprint. We explored Shinjuku and found a great view of the city, visited Tokyo’s Times Square-equivalent in the Shibuya crossing, and sampled food and Japanese whiskey in the Ebisu area. After I snagged a few hours of sleep in a capsule hotel, we rose early to visit the famous Tsukiji fish market and to sample some amazingly good sushi. I spent the peaceful afternoon alone exploring the Shinjuku Gyoen garden, Yoyogi Park, and Meiji Shrine. In less than 24 hours I was back at the airport, exhausted but fulfilled, and ready to sleep all the way to Honolulu.
Trip 3: Hawaii
I arrived three days early in Hawaii for my last leg, a family trip. I stayed in a hostel near Waikiki Beach, where I recovered from jetlag while swimming and running by the ocean. I also spent some time watching the World Cup while at the hostel, which included a memorable extra time win for a group of very passionate Swiss travelers. I particularly enjoyed biking and hiking by myself to see Manoa Falls, as well seeing Diamond Head later in the day once my family had arrived. The rest of the week was spent on the Big Island, where we passed the time snorkeling, surfing, and generally lounging on the beach. One afternoon was spent at Volcanoes National Park, observing lava formations, tunnels, and the eerie orange glow that came from the volcano after dark. One of the most memorable experiences from the whole trip came right at the end, when we visited the observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea and saw some of the clearest starry skies I’ve ever seen. It was a perfect way to cap off a truly unforgettable trip.
All in all, my month-long circumnavigation of the globe ranks as one of my favorite experiences thus far in life and an amazing way to spend my final summer vacation. Over the course of my travels, I was alone in the largest city in the world, and I was surrounded by friends in the emptiest of Icelandic landscapes. I saw snow-covered mountains and smog-covered skyscrapers and everything in between. If I could do it again, I’d probably like to slow down a bit and take more time to explore a random street, as those little unexpected moments often became favorites of mine. But there isn’t one right way to see the world. Sometimes time is short and what the heck.
I don’t know when I’ll next have the opportunity to take another such trip—in the meantime, I’ll be busy exploring my new home of Seattle and the surrounding area. However, for anyone in college that enjoys travel and is currently wondering how to spend a future vacation, don’t let it go to waste. The world is waiting.
Thomas is a recent M&T graduate from the Class of 2014 from Pottstown, Pennsylvania. He studied Computer Science within Penn Engineering and Management and Marketing in the Wharton School.