Meet The Stamp Collectors: Lena Papadopoulos

Meet The Stamp Collectors is a series of interviews with travelers who've reached the milestone of visiting 50 countries, hence they've collected 50 passport stamps. This elite group of adventurers share real-life insights about their love of exploring our precious planet. They are voyagers who seek out unique experiences and develop their own perspective through immersive travel experiences. I hope their stories and sage advice will inspire you to push your boundaries and continue to travel near and far. This is not a contest about who's been to the most countries but a reflection on what it's been like to visit at least a quarter of the world's nations.

Lena Papadopoulos is a first-generation Greek-American, born and raised in the United States–Lena although she thinks of her parents’ village in Greece as home. Growing up between two very different cultures instilled in Lena a desire for intercultural exchange and a passion for travel. She has lived in 10 cities around 6 countries on 4 continents. Lena has a BA in Sociology and Psychology, and an MA in Cultural Anthropology and International Development.  Lena seeks to break down barriers that separate people by creating intentional opportunities for understanding and collaboration across cultural difference. She's a passionate storyteller and created the #voyagetovulnerability movement to encourage others to share their journeys with honesty and authenticity.

She's been to over half of the U.S. states, but there are still a lot of places she want's to visit, especially all of the national parks. Her travels have taken her to 53 countries. Lena, like most travelers, reflects that there’s always more to see and discover, even in countries she has visited. Country-counting had become a source of ego for Lena, she was putting a lot of weight on the number of places she’d been. She now recognizes that it is a privilege to have such incredible travel opportunities and experiences.

What was the first country you visited outside of your birth nation?

Greece! Honestly, I have no idea exactly when the first time was, but likely before I was even a year old. I grew up going nearly every summer to visit my family. I even flew to Greece by myself when I was 7 years old and my mom couldn’t travel because she was pregnant with my sister. My love for solo travel started young!

What's your favorite phrase in another language you've learned through your travels?

“Unter jedem Dach ein ‘Ach!’” I’ve been to Germany nearly a dozen times, but I didn’t learn this phrase until I spent a few days with a couple of Germans in Macedonia. We had some very real, honest conversations about the most intimate parts of our lives, and they shard this saying with me. It essentially translates as, “there’s a sigh under every roof,” meaning that no home, no family, no person is without their problems. I often wonder about the lives of the people passing by me on the streets, sitting next to me on the bus. Who are they? What's their story? What's the sigh under their roof? We become so consumed with our own lives and our own stories, and we forget that others have a story, too. We never know what the person next to us is living. I think it’s important that we all do our best not to take that fact for granted.

Is there a book that has greatly influenced you as a traveler?

One book which has greatly impacted the way I move through the world is Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World by Arturo Escobar. Escobar examines how the discourse of the post-WWII era essentially created the so-called ‘Third World,’ and how international development policies have been used as neo-colonial mechanisms of control. These understandings have transformed the way I travel, especially as a privileged Westerner.

What is your favorite travel quote?

"Wanderlust...the 'lust' part has more to do with surrender than with conquest, and is closer to what I would call gusto; and the 'wander' has little to do with crossing borders and getting stamps in one's passport, and everything to do with stretching the boundaries of one's perspective and being drawn constantly to challenge. The person susceptible to wanderlust is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation."–Pico Iyer

Which country cemented your love for travel?

There wasn't a country that cemented my love for travel. I had grown up traveling a bit with my family, and I had always loved it. Growing up between two cultures gives you an understanding and appreciation of differences. I was always drawn to people who had different cultural backgrounds, so in university, I lived in something called the “Cultural Exchange Community” with international students from around the world. These friendships fueled my desire to see and experience the places and cultures my community came from, and once I started traveling on my own, it was like I had unlocked my soul’s destiny. 

Which was your favorite country for food?

It may be a completely biased answer, but I would honestly have to say Greece. I've never had such fresh, well-made food anywhere in the world. I’m talking about food in the small local villages and obviously, my grandmothers’ food ranks the highest! Maybe it’s because food in these areas is made with meraki, meaning people have poured bits of their heart and soul into the preparation.

Which was your favorite country for architecture?

Italy. I spent years wanting to be an architect. I would sit in class in elementary school and design the layouts and floor plans of buildings. I entered university with admittance into one of the best architecture programs but just before school started, I decided I wanted to move toward a field that focused on connections with people. I still love being surrounded by amazing buildings. I found the architecture in Italy stunning; from Rome, to Milan, to Florence. It’s all beautiful, and you can really feel the history in every place.

Which was your favorite country for nature?

New Zealand! I remember feeling like I had landed on another planet there. You can drive just a couple of hours and find yourself in a completely new landscape. Rolling green hills, snow-capped mountains, glacial lakes, thermal springs, volcanos. New Zealand has everything! I spent nearly half a year there, over a decade ago, and it still remains one of the most amazing and memorable places I’ve ever been!

Which country left a lasting impression on you?

They all have in their own unique ways. Each place carried with it its own energy, relationships formed, personally transformational moments, etc. I remember something unique and life-altering about each place I’ve been to.

Is there a country that changed the way you travel?

My experience in Tanzania changed the way I traveled from that point forward. I went there as a volunteer to teach English after graduating from university. I was 23-years-old, had zero qualifications to be an English teacher. I had this white-savior mentality of helping people. In the time that I was there, I developed a lot of questions about the ethical implications and impacts of my volunteer role, which gave me far more power and authority than it ever should have in such a situation. I know that those, like myself, who go to ‘help’ others are well-intentioned; but good intentions don’t always lead to good results. These aid experiences often have harmful, unintended consequences on local people and communities. I think we have to acknowledge the privilege that allows us to have these experiences, and we need to be honest about who is really benefiting. My American passport-holding, English-speaking, White-skinned body allows me to move about the world freely and easily. My greatest takeaway from my experience in Tanzania was that I had nothing to offer in my traveling; rather, I can learn so much from the local people in each different place.

Which country exceeded your expectations, and why?

Slovenia! I had zero expectations and knew nothing about it before going. I wanted to travel through the Balkans, looked at a map to choose a possible starting point, searched for some flights and decided I would fly into Ljubljana. It was completely random, and I only intended to stay a few days. But my luggage was lost on the way, and I ended up staying over a week. It was the best place to be stuck. I fell in love with the energy there from the cafes, the cobblestone streets, the natural landscapes, the people, and the food. I absolutely loved it there; maybe because I had no previous reason to think I would!

Which was your favorite country for cocktails?

I was obsessed with the pisco sours in Chile. I had one with nearly every meal. They're a very memorable part of my experience in Chile. In fact, we spent NYE camping in Torres Del Paine hiking the infamous W trail, and we met a group of Argentinians who made us make-shift pisco sours in plastic water bottles that night. So even in the middle of nowhere while camping, I was drinking pisco sours in Chile!

Which country disappointed you, and why?

Honestly, Cuba. Unlike Slovenia, I had too many expectations about Cuba. As an American, Cuba had always been this sort of off-limits place so naturally, I was eager to go. I think I romanticized and idealized what Cuba would be like. It did have a lot of things I had imagined: warm and friendly people, a lot of music, dancing in the streets. It was more expensive than I’d imagined; the prices for tourists were so much higher, a way bigger markup than I’d experienced anywhere else in my travels, and my budget was not ready. I also didn’t find the food to be very good at all which is something I had really idealized. I know it seems like the pluses really outweigh the downsides, but it was more so just about a feeling. Something didn’t connect for me. I found myself ready to go home after 4-5 days, something that never happens to me.

Which country was completely different than what you expected?

China. In the US, we grow up with a particular imagery and idea of what it means to be Communist. China was none of those things, and I think living there was one of my strongest revelations around the harmful impacts of American propaganda, but it also showed me the many different forms Communism can take in reality. The disparity in wealth in China is incredibly obvious, despite social equality. The bans on social media are really easy to bypass. So many things and places are really posh and fancy. I just wasn’t at all expecting it to be what it was!

What country are you eager to get back to?

There are so many, for so many different reasons, most of them very sentimental. But in terms of seeing and exploring more, I am longing to get back to Argentina. I only went to Patagonia, which was gorgeous, but I want to see so much more. I have felt so drawn to it, and desire to live in Buenos Aires for a while, even though I’ve never been there. I want to explore a lot more of South America in general, and I’m hoping to make it back soon, maybe even this year.

Which country would you not go back to?

There are countries I thought I wouldn’t go back to until a recent experience changed that mindset for me. I just went to India for the second time. I loved it the first time I went, and I left claiming that it was my favorite country. But, I hated it this second time around, and I ended up leaving early. Travel is so contextual; your experience depends on so many different factors. Your first experience may be nothing like your second, or third, or fourth. This is why I think we can’t rely too heavily on anything we hear or read about a place; we have to decide for ourselves. Even though I didn’t like India the second time I went, I won’t ever forget how meaningful and special my first trip was, so it doesn’t mean I never want to go back. Places I may not have loved the first time may be totally different on another visit, so why not give them a chance?

Have you had any responsible travel experiences?

After my experience in Tanzania and the perspectives I gained on international development through my Master’s program, a goal of mine became to better prepare young students to have more responsible, sustainable experiences abroad. Through my former role as an educator at Florida State University, I started working with a student-run NGO that sent students on service trips abroad each summer. We worked together to identify and address some of the unethical and unsustainable things that had been happening through the organization’s projects. They worked on modifying their constitution and approach, and I designed and facilitated retreats for them before they set off for their summer abroad. Engaging in these very hard, honest conversations with these students proved to be incredibly powerful. Our collaboration was unbelievably meaningful for me, and this is work I hope to expand and continue.

What keeps you motivated to continue traveling?

My motivation goes back to my favorite travel quote. I truly am committed to transforming myself and my worldview–travel has proven to be the most valuable and powerful way for me to do that. Travel provides an escape from routine, the known, the predictable. It's an adventure in inconsistency. A lesson in resiliency. A catalyst for flexibility and uncertainty. For me, it's become an addiction to novelty. But travel can also be a lesson in stability. I think about things such as: Where is home? What is home? And more importantly, when the desire to escape hits, what is it that I want to escape from? What am I afraid of? Honestly, the answer is most often: myself. But the beautiful thing about travel is that, in many ways, you can escape, and in many other ways, you can't. I've found that in each place I've gone, I've discovered a different version of myself. The more I run from myself, the more I run toward myself. The more I run away from what doesn't make sense to me, the closer I come to finding where I belong, and who I want to be there beside me.

What is your top travel tip?

Let go of expectations; things are never as you imagined they might be and having an attachment to expectation only leads to judgment when it isn’t met. Let go of plans; things are never going to turn out as you anticipated, and sometimes, that’s where the greatest learning and adventures are found. Let things happen, and go with the flow. Let go of your ego; you don’t know everything, and you’re not meant to. You will get lost, you will struggle with the local language, you may make a cultural faux pas. Let people help you; listen to the advice and wisdom of local people and adapt accordingly. We always feel the need to control everything, but I believe that the most transformational travel experiences happen when we let go of that need.

What is the most prolific lesson you've learned through travel?

Acceptance, non-judgment, empathy–a whole host of lessons that come with the understanding of cultural exposure and building intercultural relationships and connections. You just realize how much of what we do and how we think is shaped by history, cultural context, politics and policies, belief systems, etc. We are all coming to the world from a completely different understanding of what it means and how it works, and yet we are also all coming from the same place of a shared and common humanity. I always think of my favorite quote by Rumi, a Persian poet, “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.”

What countries are on your bucket list?

It may be easier to tell you which ones aren’t…None. I want to go everywhere! I would say that Iran is probably #1 on my list at the moment. And more the of the Middle East, in general: Lebanon, Jordan, etc. I also really want to travel through Central Asia…I hear the Stans calling my name!

Where are you headed next?

I have no idea! My partner and I are traveling full-time right now, and we are letting our route evolve as we go along. We’ve been in Thailand for a couple of months and will visit Myanmar next. Japan is a must for us before leaving Asia. Not knowing is half the fun!

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