Don’t Wait to Travel the South Pacific Islands!

Don’t Wait to Travel the South Pacific Islands!

I lived in New Zealand for almost two years but didn’t visit the islands of the South Pacific until my final months, instead electing to fly to Myanmar and Chile during the vacations of my first year. Why did I wait? I suppose for similar reasons never trying to visit the Caribbean from the United States. I thought there won’t be much to do beyond the beach and I could only handle several hours of beach relaxation, especially in places where the sun was so strong. I thought traveling the islands would be expensive and, since they were so remote, lack infrastructure for solo travelers. What I didn’t realize is the islands of the South Pacific are filled with friendly people, a wide assortment of aquatic and outdoor activities and a fascinating cultural heritage. My advice is don’t wait! If you’re thinking about what island to visit first, I’d recommend: 1) Fiji- Paradise for solo travelers I was a bit hesitant to visit Fiji because I thought it would be too touristy but I also figured it might be the best option for solo travelers like myself. Yes, it’s a bit touristy when you first arrive in Nadi but there’s so many islands that everyone spreads out and you can easily find a tropical piece of paradise that you share with a few dozen others. Furthermore, the infrastructure makes it easy and affordable to get around on your own and there’s many backpackers there who had just finished working holidays in Australia or New Zealand or were on round-the-world trips. Everyone in the boat to my first resort was traveling alone so making friends was easy. I spent a week in Fiji with a night in a beach backpackers near the airport then took the ferry to the Yasawas Island group. I had done some research and chose to split my time between Barefoot Kuata Resort and Manta Ray Resort, which was recommended by a friend. I was lucky because both of these places turned out to be good choices but I didn’t realize that all the islands offer different activities so I’d recommend thinking about what you want to do then staying at a resort that has it. Humpbacks during a heat run in Vava’u, Tonga. Photo by my friend @delacordilleraalmarAt Barefoot Kuata, the main activity was scuba diving with bull sharks. It’s possible for people even without their diving licenses (like me) so each person is paired with an instructor, you swim down about 12 meters and hide behind a coral wall. They feed the sharks, and supposedly the wall of bubbles distracts the sharks from the fact that there are people there but the instructors have metal poles just in case. (Very safe, haha). It was absolutely an incredible experience to be just feet away from bull sharks, reef sharks and other colorful fish with no cages separating you from the mighty fish. The one downside of Barefoot Kuata is its only a couple hours away from the main port so the island gets pretty busy with day trippers but beyond that, it was perfect. Manta Ray Resort, as the name suggests, is famous for the option to snorkel with manta rays. In the mornings, they have people waiting to see when the mantas swim during the channel, then when they are spotted, people run through the resort shouting “manta ray swim!”, everyone grabs their snorkeling gear and piles into the boat. The actual manta ray swim was a bit disappointing for me just because there were so many tourists, from this resort and others, following these mantas in a herd. However, this resort has an incredible snorkel spot right off its shores so after returning from the official swim, a staff member saw a manta when I was snorkeling, dropped me off near it and I had a private swim with a manta ray. It was a good workout, trying to keep up, and an absolute magical experience. The one “downside” of Manta Ray is it was more of a family resort so if you’d prefer a holiday without kids running around, maybe chose another. 2) Tonga- Humpback Whale Swims & The Friendliest People One of the friends I made in Fiji headed to Tonga straight after to fulfill her bucket list dream of swimming with humpback whales. Tonga and the Dominican Republic are supposedly the only two places you can do this, as the whales seek warmer climates for calving season between June and October. She spent a few weeks in Vava’u, one of the main island groups, doing a 10-day whale cruise, followed by several day trips with...

Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

Trapped: Exploring An Alternative Art Museum & Life In Cuba According to a Cuban

It was Friday night in Havana and since I would need quite a few mojitos before I was confident enough to hit the Cuban dance floor, I decided to start the evening at Fabrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory). A few years ago, they converted an abandoned cooking oil factory into a mixed use art space filled with unusual photography, film and dance studios, music venues, restaurants and bars. It was an absolute maze… when I thought I had seen it all, I turned a corner and a whole new section opened up. Exploring the Art Museum with A Local After my initial survey of the area, I decided to break for a $3 baguette to pass time until performances started and I struck up a conversation with the Cuban guy who was behind me in line. He was just starting his first year of university as civil engineering student. Most of his family lived in Washington DC and he was hoping he could join them some day, but in Cuba, you pay for higher education with two years of working for the government then men are obligated to serve a year in the army so it would be a long process. After eating, we decided to wander around together and seeing the museum through his eyes was a completely different experience. He brought me to a short animated film, where a girl continuously failed in her attempts to leave the island where she was marooned. She tried to make a boat out of a bucket but the bucket quickly filled with water and sank. She tried to use two palm trees as stilts in an attempt to call for help but the trees fell over. She tried to climb a flagpole to send a signal but the flag blew away in a sudden gust of wind. I interpreted it as a klutzy girl, unlikely to be a finalist on Survivor. He looked me in the eyes and solemnly said, “That’s us. We’re in jail here” referring to the situation of his county, his people. He took me to some of his other favorite spots in the museum. This included a collection of newspaper clippings from the 1950s about all the lies the government told the people, inciting fear of nuclear power, Chinese immigrants taking all the work and praising the strength of the Cuban currency. He took me to his favorite piece… it looked like an amateur photographer spilled a random collection of photos (mostly strange things and naked people) on the table. One photo included a sign of a bar that told people they were free to blaspheme and criticize the government. He said something along the lines of, “if only such a place existed”. Visiting Communist Cuba With Obama easing travel restrictions in Cuba, there were countless articles encouraging Americans to visit to see the country “before it changes” or before it’s ruined by the onset of Americans. Admittedly, I’m guilty of coming for exactly that reason. There’s some evidence of progress, like people hunched over their phones in wifi hotspots around the city and some modern taxis with air conditioning and even mini movie screens to watch music videos, but when people say visiting Cuba is like traveling back in time, it’s absolutely true. The cab driver who picked me up from the airport drove a car from 1956 and commented, “all the tourists say ‘your car is so beautiful’ but I’d trade this car in an instant a modern American one”. The Cubans maintained cars from the 50s and 60s because with the embargo, they had no other option. Now, the cars are UNESCO protected national treasures, often being “Frankensteined” combinations of parts from other cars within the body. Outside Havana, most taxis are horses with carts or bike taxis. It’s inspiring to see how Cuban ingenuity made the best of a bad situation but how long should we let this go on? It’s still a visibly communist country. When I waited in line at the bank to change money, I was entertained by a slide show of photos of Fidel Castro. In Vinales, I went to a disco party in a cave and they interrupted the evening for a 30 minute photo slideshow with songs dedicated to Fidel. Practically speaking, options are limited, even as a tourist. It’s hard to find markets or even places to buy snacks, non-Cubans can only travel with one bus company and Internet access is restricted primarily to controlled hotspots. Products are limited too- the market ran out of big water bottles when I was in Vinales. My Havana tour guide joked...

Find Happiness in a New City: 3 Secrets

Find Happiness in a New City: 3 Secrets

After a month and a half of “real life” in Auckland, New Zealand, I’m finally starting to feel settled and find my groove but it wasn’t not easy.  I’ve met others who have been for years and still doesn’t feel completely adjusted.  Whether you’ve moved to a new country or just relocated to a distant new city, you’re never going to have as much history as in your hometown.  And it’s always hard to be away from friends and family, especially if they still reunite regularly. When I first got here, I struggled, which might have been obvious when I wrote this post.  A couple weeks ago, I started to appreciate New Zealand more and, thanks to a change in attitude, I’ve continued to embrace this place.  Although I’m by no means an expert, here’s three secrets that have helped me find happiness in a new city, with specific suggestions for ex-pats in Auckland, New Zealand.  Well, maybe they aren’t secrets, but sometimes simple suggestions can be effective! 1) View Each Day As An Adventure When you are living in a new city, it’s the best of both worlds… the adventure of traveling and the financial stability of working… unfortunately, a lot of people get wrapped up into new jobs, new responsibilities and new habits that they forget to take advantage of the fun parts of being in a new habitat.  Or they think they have time to explore so they postpone doing it.  I recently read an article from CNN  18 things we love on vacation but hate back home that playfully exemplifies how different people react differently on vacation than at home. “When we travel, we become children again — every experience is box-fresh with a new-car smell. Public transportation? A magic train ride to awesome. Grocery stores? An Aladdin’s cave of unfamiliar vegetables and hilarious brand names.   Back home, we have our security filters on high alert. That friendly stranger must be a lecher, lunatic or bore. A carnival parade is a sequined traffic disruption and street performers are bell-ringing pariahs. But on vacation, we let ourselves be open. We’ll taste that testicle souffle, we’ll sample that snake-venom liqueur. And when our stomachs rebel later that night, we’ll still be glad we tried.” When things go wrong traveling, you’re more likely to view it as part of the adventure, and laugh off bad experiences as a good story to tell back home.  When you run into similar situations in “real life”, it can ruin your whole day (for example, the spontaneous parade that delay your trip to the beach or the random person talking to you on the metro, ruining your nap).  Things aren’t always going to go smoothly when you’re in a place with different cultural norms, values and tradition.  You can often respond by laughing or crying.  Although crying can be tempting when you’re stressed and struggling to adjust, adopt the traveler’s reaction, giggle then share your “crazy story” with your friends back home. This weekend, 9 of my physics co-workers and I decided to hike one of Auckland’s most beautiful tracks, the 10.3 km Te Henga walkway.  The forecast looked beautiful, the sky looked beautiful when we left Auckland but as soon as we got far enough into the trek not to turn back, it started raining hard.  Before we knew it, all of us were drenched and spent the next couple hours slip, sliding through the mud.  Some of the people who lived in Auckland to anticipate finicky weather were prepared, and the Italian even bust out an umbrella, but I got soaked to the skin.  But, we all had a good laugh, and it brought back memories of mud sliding through Sapa, Vietnam. My French friend took this lesson a step further.  He was tired of getting blasted by the wind and soaked by the rain during his bicycle commute to work so he decided to use the wind to his advantage.  Now wind surfing is his new favorite hobby and it makes him appreciate less-than-ideal weather. In addition to adapting a traveler’s attitude toward mishaps, go exploring!  Immerse yourself in the new culture, recreation like the locals do, try the regional cuisine.  The Internet is great for creating “little bucket lists” to consult when you’ve got a free weekend and nothing to do.  Instead of being depressed about your lack of immediate best friends, maybe you’ll meet one if you do something from 16 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do In Auckland, The Ultimate New Zealand Bucket List or 50 Things You Should Have Done if You Live in Auckland. 2) Adapt to Your New Surroundings If you’re going to settle in to a new city, you’re going to have...

Dangers of Solo Travel But Why It’s Worth It

Dangers of Solo Travel But Why It’s Worth It

Warning: This Post is… Intense Yesterday, I shared on Facebook Leah McLennan’s article “Why I’ll never stop traveling solo” which was written in response to the rape and murder of two Argentine female travelers in Ecuador earlier this month.  I didn’t follow the actual incident closely at the time because I stay away from depressing news but basically  Maria Coni, 22, and Marina Menegazzo, 21, did something many travelers do. When running low on money in Ecuador, they reached out to their friends for help with accommodation and were put in touch with two men who offered them a place for the night. When one woman resisted the advances of a drunk host, he hit her over the head and she was instantly killed.  The next morning, both women were found dead in garbage bags on a beach. Apparently, this event caused the Internet to erupt in discussions about solo female travel (even though these girls were traveling together) and caused many people to conclude that these women were to blame for traveling alone, or their parents were to blame for letting them travel alone, or other ridiculous accusations placed in all the wrong places.  Of course, this caused female travelers to respond speaking out against violence against women and victim blaming, with the use of #viajosola (I travel alone) hashtag trending on Twitter and a poem written by Guadalope Acosta from the perspective of the victims, (translated from Spanish) “Yesterday I was killed… But worse than death, was the humiliation that followed. From the moment they found my inert dead body nobody asked where the son of a bitch that ended my dreams, my hopes and my life was.  No, instead they started asking me useless questions… What clothes were you wearing? Why were you alone? Why would a woman travel alone?  They questioned my parents for giving me wings, for letting me be independent, like any human being. They told them we were surely on drugs and were asking for it, that we must’ve done something, that they should have looked after us… By doing what I wanted to do, I got what I deserved for not being submissive, not wanting to stay at home, for investing my own money in my dreams. For that and more, I was sentenced”.  As someone who has traveling extensively alone in dangerous countries, couchsurfed and spent time alone with probably hundreds of “strangers”, it’s pretty heart wrenching to read something like this because it could have easily happened to me, if God and my family’s rosaries weren’t keeping me safe.  Obviously, what’s even worse than thinking that I could be dead is thinking that if it did happen to me, people would blame me for being stupid or my parents for being irresponsible. Why I’ll never stop traveling solo Leah McLennan, the Australian solo traveler whose article alerted me to all this, came to a few relevant conclusions in her article, “Why I’ll never stop traveling solo” but I want to add my two cents and take it one step further.  She writes that she’s been in a few sketchy situations before but fortunately, “Fortunately, I can easily recount these travel stories as none of them turned into an assault.”  She concludes that the good experiences outweigh the bad and “Ultimately, there’s no one secret to staying safe while travelling, it’s a process of being wise, planning ahead, conducting thorough research and keenly listening to your instincts. While random and shocking, the murder of the two Argentine backpackers should not hold us back from living life to the fullest and exploring whichever part of the globe we choose.” She also announces, “I have decided I will not let these negative experiences keep me at home. Besides, violence against women is present in every country in the world, including here in Australia.” I agree with all this but want to come clean about what happened to me in Kenya because, while this is true, I believe there’s even more to it. My experiences traveling alone “By leaving our safety net, we have thrown our souls upon the wind, exposing ourselves to all the fears and dangers that we sought to protect each other from, and in doing so, we have made ourselves available to experience things that… border on the magical” -Wanderlust, Elisabeth Eaves Part of the scariest, but also most magical, part of really traveling is how vulnerable it makes you.  You’re in a foreign country by yourself, potentially surrounded by unfamiliar languages, different customs, different values and if you’re a blond and blue eyed, there’s practically a neon sign floating distinguishing you as a foreigner, someone who doesn’t belong.  Whether you want to find a place to eat that won’t give you food poisoning,...

Long Term Travel & Simple Secret for Meaningful Life

Long Term Travel & Simple Secret for Meaningful Life

While Christmas is the capstone of the holiday season for many Americans, I always preferred Thanksgiving and up until this year, it was the one holiday I always made it home for. I love how its a holiday you smell before you celebrate it.  I love  how a lazy morning watching the Macy’s Day parade suddenly turns into a chaotic rush of pre-party preparation in the kitchen. I love nibbling on breakfast in preparation for the big feast. I love how my mom thinks about modernizing her menu each year but has to keep mashed potatoes for my cousins, Uncle Bo’s cornbread, Billy’s devil eggs, broccoli for my sister, pecan pie for grandma to an extent that the meal remained the same for decades. I love how the holiday is centered around a big meal so no one has to worry about buying gifts or dressing nice since everyone’s zipper is going to be tight after eating anyway.  And I don’t even eat turkey! This Thanksgiving, there was no turkey, there wasn’t even time to Skype my family and it definitely wasn’t in America, but it did involve giving thanks (who would have thought?).  So it took traveling abroad to reconnect with the true spirit of the holiday that I usually forget when stuffing my face back home.  I woke up in Amsterdam on the couch of an old friend that I didn’t know I’d see again but a 14-hour layover gave us the chance to catch up. I took a moment to thank the dozens of strangers who have shared their couches with me over the years, and the universe for unexpected opportunities to cross paths with some of these people again. Instead of being woken up to the smell of turkey, I had to drag myself to the airport before dawn. I stopped at a convenience store to pick some stroopwafel and satisfy a craving that I’ve had since my last visit to the Netherlands. I felt grateful that I had the freedom to eat carmelized waffle cookies for breakfast and a job that I can do from anywhere so I have the funds to indulge in small luxuries like these and that I’m worldly enough to know what stroofwafel is! I passed quickly through immigration, thankful for my American passport that gets me most places without a hassle and being born to a middle-class family who gave me the education and support I need to make a life of travel possible. The short flight to Morocco passed quickly and I landed in Casablanca grateful for another visit to my favorite continent, where I immediately felt like I was in another world. Instead of Amsterdam’s digital clocks ticking away the seconds and constant stream of trains, I had a few hours to spare before I could take the train to the city. I drank a terrible tasting cappuccino at a basic cafe, got 10x overcharged the cost of a local SIM card but relaxed knowing that spending a few extra dinars won’t ruin my trip. After waiting a few more hours to catch a train Mohammedia, I arrived to my couchsurfing host with frazzled hair and tired eyes but his crazy hair and warm welcome put a smile back on my face. Although his home was humble, he treated me like a princess, with fresh, foamy mint tea and a homemade tangine. We chatted for a few hours and then he let me crash around 6 PM. I feel asleep grateful that he let me have exactly what I needed (blankets and a place to pass out for 14 hours!) and his incredible generosity even though his house lacked some of the things I took for granted for twenty years… clean, running water, essentially unlimited food (if there’s ever a natural disaster, my dad’s cabinet can keep you alive for at least a few months!) and heat in the winter (an unthinkable luxury almost worldwide!). “Happy” Although I’ve basically essentially traveling for the past 1.5 years, this 6-month trip has my longest continuous journey through some of the most “complicated” countries and over the greatest distances. I hopped back and forth across the equator and bounced between 18 countries (Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, China, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Italy, Tunisia, Turkey, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Morocco and Spain) on 4 continents. While most of it involved general wandering, I taught a three-week course in China, gave some academic talks in South Africa and interviewed (successfully) for a job in New Zealand. I celebrated my 27th birthday in Vietnam, where a night bus dumped me on the streets of Hanoi at 5 AM where a pouty, tattooed lady named Ling Ling...

Traveling Zanzibar: Not Your Ordinary Island

Traveling Zanzibar: Not Your Ordinary Island

Zanzibar. The image I had in my mind of this island off the Tanzania coast was a cliché combination of white sand, turquoise water and bungalows built for tourists. I almost considered skipping it- why pay more for a slightly better beach when I was quite happy listening to the Indian Ocean under the palm trees and watching locals play football at beach near Dar Es Salaam.   “YOLO, YOLO” (You only live once”, tour guide Nikka advised me. Ok, not using the teenage abbreviation but essentially conveying the same message. “Ok, ok, I’ll do it”, I replied then strategically added, “you haven’t let me down yet” so I could watch his reaction to see if I really was making a good decision or he was just trying to get rid of me and the rest of the tour group for a few days. He seemed genuine. The ferry ride seemed to qualm some of my fears. Despite taking the fast ferry, tourists were a small fraction: isolated dots in a sea of swirling fabric with bold African prints, punctuated by bedazzled headdresses for the women and embroidered neutral colored hats perkily perched atop the men. Arrival in Zanzibar had a healthy dose of African chaos. Porters in reflective vests climbed over each other to offer their services helping with luggage. Staff from the boat yelled a warning, “Negotiate your prices before hand! Only trust official porters!”, but with a kind of half-smile that suggested they knew they were throwing us to the wolves. Zanzibar is part of the “United Republic of Tanzania” but we still had to fill out immigration forms (because more paperwork is ALWAYS better) then waited behind women who were unloading boxes from their heads, bags from under each arm and babies off their backs as their husbands stood uselessly, unburdened by their sides from the obligatory “baggage check”. Of course, most people got an automatic chalk check before they even began to unzip, except for the unfortunate souls that they arbitrarily decided to torture with an extended inspection. We did our best to make a beeline through the swarm of taxi drivers waving their keys in our faces then hopped in the van for a 50 kilometer drive from our entry point in Zanzibar Town to the Nungwi Beach, the location of the majority of resorts on the island. I was pleasantly surprised that the drive still felt like Africa: barbershops, cows hauling carts holding up traffic, people taking naps and elaborately carved door frames propped up against palm trees collecting dust as they wait for a buyer. We bump along, squeeze through one-way bridges and get stopped at a gate by a policeman that holds us up for an hour, trying to charge us for a driving a vehicle with a registration sticker that expires today. . The driver refuses to satisfy his ridiculous request and we proceed, eventually veering off on a side street through ramshackled huts selling half-inflated beach toys and backyards of people trying to catch their kids for bath time. We pull up to a gate, which opens to the touristy bungalows, sapphire swimming pools and attentive staff that I expected to see. I dumped my bags in my hotel room, looking past the king sized bed, flower petals and towels folded like swans to let out a squeal of glee to see a pillow (the past two weeks, I’ve been camping and using a makeshift cushion out of clothes stuffed into my sleeping bag cover). I kick off my shoes, ignoring the receptionist’s sea urchin warning and head barefoot to the beach. I traverse the beach in a squiggly path, trying to avoid the teenagers waving pamphlets selling snorkeling trips or (if you get closer to overhear) marijuana “Spice up your holiday with some Malawi-wowee! Welcome to Paradise Fun!”. I’m slightly mystified to see the elegant, statuesque Maasi men on the beach, with sea breezes rustling their red and black checked robes. They looked extremely out of place, hidden behind aviator sunglasses, when it seemed like they belonged drinking cow blood in the bush. I dismissed their presence as a photo-op for tourists, but it made even more sense when I later learned their involvement in sex tourism. On my walk back, more out of boredom that anything else, I allowed myself to be intercepted by one of the infamous “beach boys”. He found out pretty fast that I wasn’t going to pay $30 to be stuck on a boat with tourists for a sunset booze cruise. We started chatting in the shade of a hotel overhang and after he learned a bit about...