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Alumni Profiles

Alumnus’s around-the-world journey filled with surprises

holden and giant buddha
Izzy Holden ’02 does his best imitation of a giant Buddha he came across in Hong Kong.

A funny thing happened to Israel “Izzy” Holden ’02 during his recent year-long, around-the-world journey of exploration and personal discovery. He found that his initial apprehensions about traveling the globe as an American were misplaced. On the contrary, he says, everywhere he went people were welcoming and very interested in his American ways.

“Friends asked me, ‘Aren’t you scared to go travel as an American? Nobody likes us right now,’” Holden said. “I never felt scared. The fear that some Americans may have about traveling abroad never came into my mind.”

If there were one place in the world where, because of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, anti-American sentiment might be expected to confront Holden in an immediate way, it would be the Middle East, but that’s precisely where he experienced some of the most welcoming feelings.

“The friendliest people I met along the way were the people of Jordan,” Holden said. “I stayed at a hostel, and a woman there took me in as the son she never had. She cooked for me, and she brought in friends who would play music, and we would talk. Everywhere you went in the streets, people wanted to know where you were from, and they loved Americans. In a way, I felt like I was a diplomat for the U.S. ”

Holden’s world odyssey began when he resigned from his job with the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department and drove cross-country to New York City, his departure point. In October 2008, he boarded his first flight and headed for South America with “a backpack and a couple of dollars,” and a traveling companion who stayed with him the first five months of the journey. He had purchased an around-the-world ticket from an airline alliance that gives you 16 flights of your choosing over a year’s time, leaving and arriving back at the same city and never backtracking.

Over the next year, Holden would visit 23 countries in South America, the South Pacific, the Far East, the Middle East, and Europe. Along the way, he counted on the hospitality of local people and the hostels for his accommodations. “I slept on people’s floors and couches, and spent a lot of time in hostels. In some cases, friends from Los Angeles had put me in touch with their friends and family in certain destinations.”

For sheer scenic beauty, Holden gave top marks to the Patagonia Mountains in the southern tip of Chile, where he hiked The W, a famous trail in Torres del Paine National Park, and New Zealand with its “mountains like Colorado and beaches like Hawaii, all in one very small, easy-going country.”

In Cambodia, he was invited to join a family reunion of those who escaped the murderous Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and those who stayed behind but survived. Another highlight was Romania, where he visited Transylvania University in Brasov and talked with a graduate who was surprised to learn of Holden’s alma mater of the same name.

Besides being reassured about attitudes toward Americans, Holden said he came away from his journey with a new sense of optimism about the world overall.

“I feel like we’re not as bad off as some people think,” he said. “The world is still a good place, filled with beautiful people and beautiful things that need to be explored and touched. It feels really good to be able to tell people about my positive experiences in the Middle East. The trip helped give me the mindset and confidence to not be afraid to try new things.”

Back in Los Angeles, Holden is exploring work with several non-profits, including an orphanage in Mexico where he worked for three months after his world travels. “I want to work directly with, or have a direct effect on, children, and possibly involve my family and friends in a new organization. That’s my goal down the road, and, hopefully, that road’s not as long as it looks right now.”

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