Kayleigh Zeeff:

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Six months ago, I had never looked at a travel blog. Amsterdam was just a place that I saw in a movie. Italy was a country that could be summed up by its capital, Rome, in all its tourism and attractions. The Eiffel Tower was a popular keychain that I would only see hanging from the ignition in my car.

I could go on, but I’ll pause here for a brief moment of silence for the passing of my ignorance and small-mindedness, may it rest in peace. But also, good riddance.

I moved to Spain in January, but still had no idea that an entire new continent was at my disposal, let alone a whole world. My university companions began making lists of extravagant places to which they wanted to travel, and I felt confused and dazed. But after I spontaneously took my first trip since being in Spain to Tangier, Morocco, my mindset was shifted. I saw a culture and a people that had never crossed my mind before that trip. I saw mountains and seas that left me blinking rapidly, trying to wake up from the dream that I figured could be the only way I was viewing that kind of beauty. I rode a camel on the beach and wore a headscarf traditional to that region; I had deep conversations about the fleeting concept of life and the poison of self-involvement with a girl who became my best friend. My life was put into perspective in those few days, and from then on I felt the travel hunger rising.

I returned to my apartment in Madrid and began ravenously planning more travel. You would never find my computer on without a Skyscanner flight search open in a tab (or seven). I had a Google search history full of maps and routes for adventures. I fantasized about backpacking through Italy, bathing in Budapest, and lounging on a beach in Lisbon. My Twitter and Instagram feeds were packed with posts from travel enthusiasts that gave me ideas for locations to add to my ever-growing bucket list in a small notebook that I kept with me all the time. It was, and still is, a time of wonder and desire for all that the world could show me.

One beautiful Madrid day, I mindlessly scrolled through my travel-heavy Twitter feed until I came upon a “retweet” that caught my eye: TRAVEL WRITERS WANTED.

I am a student of linguistics, so language is my passion, but I have not considered myself a “writer” for a long time. I wanted it to be my career at one point, until a previously-important yet incredibly critical individual told me there was no way I could accomplish that because I didn’t have the necessary skill level. So I put down the pen and let the dream fade away. However, something called me to Project Alpha. It was just one story, right? I could make one story impactful. And this was the first time in my life that I felt I had thoughts to share that could matter to someone.

Looking back, I’m not sure what Hung, our fearless leader, saw in me. I sent him an overly-formal email that sounded like a college application as I tried to justify the fact that I had only been a “traveler” for a short time but that I knew I could make something out of it, so I wanted to join his charity book project. I even included a line saying, “Even if my story doesn’t make it into the finished product…” as if I had to qualify and be selected. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I quickly became submerged in an ocean of words and inspiration. Not long after I sent him my almost-resume, he asked if I wanted to write anything for his blog, Up, Up, And A Bear. To which I replied, “I actually already have something in mind.” Once it was posted, I had the most uplifting realization: people are AMAZING. I got positive feedback on my article from the kindest and most cultured individuals I have ever encountered, some of which are also involved in Project Alpha. I wanted to learn all that I could from them. Strangers became friends, and a dream became a reality. Jumping into this world of travel writing and storytelling was immensely wonderful coming from a place of inexperience because it has only motivated me to read, learn, and adventure more. I investigate the travel blogs of the people I’ve come to know through the project (that’s right, Alpha-ites, I’m stalking your adventures) and have begun to support bloggers I don’t know at all. I now feel curious about things that I have never known to exist before. And I have come to believe that curiosity is one of the most sought-after sensations in the human world.

Though I love the blog that Hung operates and always have fun writing for it, the story I wrote for the project was one to which I have become so attached. It took me weeks to put it on paper, days to edit several times, and another few days to let it sit and stare at me before I submitted it. The reason for that borderline-obsessive process is the fact that I want to give all my effort and all my ability into this cause about which I feel passionate. I have witnessed Project Alpha grow, expand, and accelerate for the past few months, and every single day I am grateful for having found that Twitter post that brought me to this impressive collaboration. I love seeing the Facebook feed of Alpha members with their differing ideas, languages, and trips. Their worldly views will create something amazing in this book. Project Alpha will change lives, there is no doubt in my mind. Whether that is the life of a child who reaps the benefits of the funds we raise, the mind of a reader who realizes they want to see the world, or simply lives like mine who have found a type of family and a worthwhile cause in this ingenious idea. I have the utmost respect for every individual in the Alpha family, and after having previewed a handful of stories through helping with editing, I am blown away by their experiences and their talent for telling their stories. If I had to bet on a group of people who could leave a significant mark the world, it would be the people who are the fuel of Project Alpha.

Hung Thai:

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Seven months ago on a cold, windy night, I looked at my life and realized there was nothing left. I was blasting and laughing for so long that even my mama thinks that my mind was gone. But I never crossed a man who didn’t deserve it. Me treated like a punk, well you know that’s unheard of. You better watch how you’re talking and where you’re walking or you and your homies might be lined in chalk.

Oops, sorry. I got caught up in Coolio’s Gangsta Paradise and forgot what I was doing.

Seven months ago on a cold, windy night, I thought to myself, Man, you should start a blog. You can write about all your trips, make millions, and retire to the Hamptons. Seven months later, I’m in the Hamptons looking at houses I can’t afford… from the comfort of my own home. Also, I did start that blog. The travel community opened its doors to welcome me and I was moved.

Then, I became more ambitious. What if… I finally did that project that has been brewing in my head for years? I started contacting bloggers I knew and respected and their enthusiasm gave me the confidence I needed to really push this idea through. Travelers from all corners of the world signed up. One of them was Kayleigh.

March 20, 2016: I received Kayleigh’s exuberant email to join Project Alpha. “I feel that I could contribute to your book-in-progress by sharing my process of growth through traveling. Even if my personal narrative does not end up being included, I am anxiously awaiting your completed work.” It was very formal. But not for long.

The more we communicated, the more at ease she became. I really enjoyed reading her emails and enthusiasm so I asked if she wanted to write for Up Up and a Bear. I indicated that there were no free cheeseburgers in store for her, but she said “yes” anyway and her first story arrived almost immediately. It was a masterpiece. I did nothing to it. None.

Kayleigh later told me someone suggested that she would have no career in writing. Maybe that person didn’t know how to read at the time. I mean… I just learned how to read 8 months ago, just in time to start this blog and this project.

I’m entirely thankful that tweet found its way to Kayleigh. She’s not just a writer and editor on our amazing team. She’s not just recently promoted V.P. of Up Up and a Bear. She’s not just a permanent cast of our Travel Panel. She’s a great friend. If she became a fugitive later in life and needed me to confirm her as my little sister to escape the authorities, I would do it – after thinking twice. I can’t process information that quickly on the first pass! And I can’t wait for everyone to read her awesome story.

I should probably stop praising her now lest her ego becomes a balloon and floats into space.

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