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Meet Danial, open-minded traveller from the US

Dan ProfWhat do you do?
I am originally from Malvern, Iowa which is a very small town in South-western Iowa but I moved to Des Moines, Iowa four years ago for college. I graduated in May 2011 from Drake University in Des Moines with Bachelor’s Degrees in Politics, International Relations, and Rhetoric.

I write about disability culture, covering topics ranging from dating and disabilities, to disability representations in music and film, to local politics and their influences on disability. I also pull a lot of my topics from personal experiences to try to have an open and honest discourse with my readers - link to blog here.

I have had Bilateral Hip Dysplasia since birth so I know that sometimes it can be hard for people to talk about their disabilities but I try to be open about mine in order to help other people with disabilities feel comfortable with my blog and our non-profit as a resource for them.

In the last two years, I worked at a Disability Rights non-profit law center and then received a research grant to move to Japan and study disability policy in Japan. So I went to a university in Japan for a year and now I am back in the United States. I start law school in New York this August.

Tell us a little about Malvern, Iowa.
Malvern is a very small town (pop. 1300 I believe) but I think it was a great place to grow up. My school was very small (35 students in my graduating class) but it was big on opportunity. Because it was small we could literally be in any and every activity we wanted to be in which is something I don’t think I could have had at a large school.

Even though I have lived in the city and have travelled a lot, I am still a country boy at heart. An ear of sweet corn can stop me dead in my tracks and every couple of months or so I make a pilgrimage to my family’s farm to just to lie in the middle of a field and count the stars. I have been a lot of places but I think the most beautiful night sky in the world is in rural Iowa.

Describe yourself in three words.
I always think the “describe yourself in three words” questions are the hardest ones to answer and it’s very hard to do without sounding pretentious. Hmmm, I guess if I had to pick three I would say I am passionate, compassionate, and open-minded. Allow me to elaborate.

When I find something I like I tend to throw myself into it completely and I can be very passionate about the things and issues I care about. I am always standing by with my soapbox ready to climb on get fired up.

I guess what I mean by this is I am usually up for anything. I will try anything once though admittedly I apply the motto “One and I’m done” to many of these experiences. I will try the weird looking food, hitchhike (which I did in Brunei when I visited), seek out little sketchy back-alley shops and hang-outs, you name it.

If we all eat the same, dress the same, act the same, etc…then I think life would be very boring. I have made it my personal mission not to live a boring life and that requires being open-minded.

Me being a guest teacher in my friend's elementary class in Tainan, Taiwan teaching them English using Spongebob Squarepants characters

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Me and the other students in my capstone research class in Japan

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On a guy's trip on a mountain overlooking the city we lived in in Japan

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Victoria Memorial, India

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Riding in a rickshaw in India

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A home for boys with disabilities I visited in India

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Stumbled upon a rural family in India while lost driving through the countryside

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You visited Brunei in 2011. Why did you decide to visit?
I was in Brunei just for tourism in 2011. I have wanted to visit Brunei for a few years now. During my travels through the region, I made sure Brunei was on my list. I studied International Relations with a focus on Asia and in one of my classes we had an energy-policy simulation and the country I represented was Brunei. By researching for my weekly debates I learned a little about Brunei and found it fascinating. Brunei just seemed like a place that would be great to experience first-hand. The religion, politics, and society are all very different from that in the United States and I think the best way to learn about something like that is through first-hand experience so I bought my ticket and went for it.

In your opinion, is it easy being a tourist in Brunei?
I really liked the “tourist” experience in Brunei. I stayed in a hotel right in the middle of Bandar Seri Begawan so I was close to the action for anything I wanted to see. While public transportation is really difficult for travellers I found the entire city to be walkable which was great for my budget and my experience. This was only a problem when I wanted to do things outside of Bandar Seri Begawan as getting a bus or taxi was a bit difficult especially if there was a language barrier. This is where I found the locals to be exceedingly helpful. People were always willing to help tell the taxi driver where I wanted to go or to help me use the bus system. One bus driver even took a bus full of people to a restaurant off his route just so I didn’t have to walk very far. (I have never had anyone in another country change the public transport schedule for me!) That is the level of friendliness that I encountered in Brunei.

My only, ONLY complaint about Brunei is that the evenings are very quiet. There was a night market near my hotel that was nice but other than that there was not a lot I could do in the city after maybe 6 or 7pm. Or if there were things to do and places to go I did not really know about them. My days were packed with amazing sites and things to do but my evenings were fairly relaxed.

Photographs from my trip to Brunei

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Would you come back to Brunei? Why?
If I had the chance to go back to Brunei I would do it in a heartbeat. I was only there for about four or five days and in that time I only really got to see the big attractions in Bandar Seri Begawan. It was amazing but there is so much of this beautiful country that I didn’t get to see. I loved my water taxi ride around Kampong Ayer and taking the boat through the mangrove forests but I have read a lot about other forests in Brunei that are supposed to be breathtakingly beautiful.

I really want to come back some day and see what else Brunei has to offer. I also want to meet more Bruneians. While positive, a lot of my interaction with people was very brief and I didn’t get to have a lot of meaningful conversations, which is something I regret. If I could find the money to go back and actually talk with Bruneians about both of our cultures I think that would be a great opportunity. Not many Americans know much about Brunei and I would love to tell them more about the country and the people that gave me such an unforgettable week.

You have travelled extensively; what are some life-lessons learnt?
The greatest piece of travel advice I ever received is that when you are in another country just remember that if the locals eat it, you can too. Food is food and we are all human beings so if they can eat it, we can too. Once I started looking at it this way I have enjoyed my travels much more. I will try anything my local friends or hosts put in front of me. Sometimes I hate it and other times it’s delicious but I at least take a bit of everything.

Food is a large part of culture and I have found that locals really appreciate it when you are open to their foods and often times the “weird food” stories are the ones my friends in the states love hearing the most.

My girlfriend and I at a famous shrine in Nara, Japan

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On the summit of Mt. Fuji

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Editor's Note: Danial's story was a long time coming (I first emailed Danial on 26th July 2011)! I reached out to Danial over Twitter after reading a series of his tweets about his visit to Brunei. You can read them in full here - Why Brunei?, Mosquerade and Goodbye, Brunei. His writings are honest, candid and rather moving I must say. In his piece "Goodbye, Brunei" (I recommend you read it in full) Danial wrote:

It was with Brunei that I experienced this new type of relationship. It was not love and was not lust. We were somewhere in between lovers and friends. It was a summer fling; a simple, carefree tryst between two who knew what they were getting into. I was going to be there for less than one week and knew I couldn’t start anything serious, but against my better judgment I threw caution to the wind and followed my heart with reckless abandon.

If you are a local or a traveller with a unique take on Brunei, I would love to connect with you and read your stories too. Reach me via email - This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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"Anyone who spends a great deal of time in another country will tell you that it is almost impossible to leave that country the same as when you entered it." ~Danial Van Sant

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