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Taking selfies with locals in Al-Hasa Oasis, Saudi Arabia
Snapping selfies in Al-Ahsa Oasis, Saudi Arabia.

On a brisk morning in February 2020, Doug Barnard ’18 set out to explore the streets of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. With his cell phone, he filmed his excursion through the city’s marketplace—wandering among displays of pots, incense, blankets, swords, and clothing.

To his surprise, a shopkeeper offered him a thobe, the traditional ankle-length robe worn by many Saudis. Barnard gratefully accepted the gift, as it provided extra warmth on a cold day.

Moments later, a street vendor invited him for coffee and introduced him to a man named Sultan and his nine-year-old son.

Barnard didn’t know it then, but Sultan is a social media celebrity, with millions of followers on Snapchat. He invited the Hotelie home for a traditional lamb dinner, served over a bed of rice, on a large platter around which diners gathered to partake by hand.

Sultan filmed the meal—and what happened next changed Barnard’s life.

“When he tagged my account in the videos, my phone immediately started buzzing and didn’t stop for another 24 hours; overnight, I amassed about 20,000 Saudi followers on Snapchat,” Barnard recalls.

“The entire thing was completely surreal. When I began posting my videos on YouTube, I had a significant audience of Saudi followers ready to watch everything I shared.”

Barnard’s travels have since led him to a dozen countries in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Now a popular travel “vlogger” (video blogger), he hosts a YouTube channel with more than 430,000 subscribers and 66,000 followers on Instagram.

“It’s difficult to put into words just how much travel has changed me,” Barnard says. “It has given me an enormous appreciation for the basic comforts of life in America that so many around the world do not enjoy.”

It’s difficult to put into words just how much travel has changed me.

Barnard had caught the travel bug from other YouTube vloggers, who showed him a world beyond his relatively homogenous hometown in rural Connecticut.

During his junior year at Cornell, he persuaded his mother to accompany him on a visit to India.

Barnard eating lunch outdoors with a family in Samarra, Iraq
Eating lunch with a family in Samarra, Iraq.

“The moment I stepped off the plane in Delhi, I was hooked,” he recalls.

“The feeling of being immersed in a place so different from any I’d known before—the people, the language, the chaos—was exhilarating for me.”

He spent a semester abroad in Spain, during which he took a solo journey to Russia—a foray that boosted his confidence and desire to do more such trips.

He still prefers traveling alone, without an interpreter, tour guide, or itinerary.

“I find it much easier to connect with locals and dive deep into the culture around me,” he says. “When you’re solo, there’s really no other choice.”

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After graduation, Barnard landed a full-time job in ecommerce for Walmart in New York City—but in August 2020, he was laid off.

“This turned out to be a great blessing in disguise,” he observes. “It forced me to choose whether to pursue another traditional job or attempt to make YouTube into a career.”

Barnard chose the latter, and in January 2021 he set off to Serbia with a one-way ticket. He’s been traveling nonstop ever since.

Swimming in the Mesopotamian Marshes
Swimming in the Mesopotamian Marshes.

In mapping his route, he has followed his instincts, exploring cities and landscapes from Bangladesh to Ukraine, Sudan to Iraq.

“I love visiting countries that aren’t popular with tourists,” he says, noting that his fans include locals seeking a foreigner’s perspective on their country.

“I find it really fun and interesting trying to communicate when none of us speaks the same language. It usually comes down to a mix of hand gestures, with some occasional help from Google Translate if I have an Internet connection.”

In his videos, Barnard strives to be genuine: curious, open, and grateful to those who welcome him to each new place.

So far, he says, he hasn’t found himself in a life-threatening situation—though he’s had a few close calls.

Most dramatically, in August 2020 he was questioned by 10 heavily armed men in Iraq; at one point, a soldier took him by the arm and began leading him toward their truck.

Barnard Eating Egyptian food with friends from Brazil, Egypt, & the US in Cairo, Egypt
Dining in Cairo with friends from Brazil, Egypt, and the U.S.

“I did not want to be taken anywhere alone; luckily, the man let go. I continued to answer their questions about my intentions and reasons for being in the country," he recalls.

"Then suddenly, after lots of phone calls, the head soldier smiled at me, handed me my passport, and said ‘Welcome to Iraq!’ And I was good to go.”

Barnard Distributing aid to Syrian refugee families in Lebanon
Distributing aid from funds raised by his followers.

(In hindsight, Barnard chalks the incident up to the fact that tourism is still a nascent industry there, and many Iraqis may not have realized that the government was issuing tourist visas.)

Now that Barnard has built a sizable audience, he hopes to use his platform to do good. For example, he recently partnered with a U.K.-based humanitarian organization to assist Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

His followers on YouTube and Instagram donated more than $16,000, which he helped distribute directly to families in need.

“I’ve always felt that the single best part of travel is the people you meet along the way, and finding out we have so much in common—in spite of it all,” he says.

“I love the idea that by the end of this journey, whenever that may be, I will have made genuine, lasting friendships with people from all over the planet.”

Top image: Taking in the sunrise atop Mount Sinai in Egypt. (That and all photos provided)

Published July 8, 2022

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