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...

First Foray into “Real” Africa: Traveling Livingstone, Zambia

First Foray into “Real” Africa: Traveling Livingstone, Zambia

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.”  ― Beryl Markham, West with the Night My plane skidded above dried, toothpick-esque trees and skidded to a stop on a small landing field at the Victoria Falls airport, surprisingly small for servicing one of Africa’s top three attractions. I joined the hoard of wheeled suitcases, walked by a sign that denoted the area where ebola inspections should have happened, cringed at some nasty pictures of ebola symptoms and passed quickly through the immigration line. I scanned the hand-written signs of taxi drivers for various resorts in my area. Not seeing my name, I asked the information desk if there was a place I could call my hostel. “Ahh… the landlines are down. If you buy me airtime, you can use my cell phone”. I crossed the airport to the only airport shop, a lady who sold snacks, handicrafts and airtime in a space as small as a closet. “You want to call a hostel in Zambia? They won’t pick you up here. Cross the border and call them as soon as you reach Zambia side. Norman will help you”. She ushered me outside into Norman’s white cab. I skeptically followed. “Welcome to the REAL Africa!” bellowed Norman after he heard an abbreviated version of my story. “I won’t move to South Africa if my life depended on it. More opportunities maybe, but no safety, man. You have to be alert at all times.” We passed through the small, touristy Victoria Falls village and he dropped me at the tired-looking gates of border patrol. The officers mechanically stamped my passport, gave me a white piece of paper, collected by a man 5 yards away then waived me to on the dusty road to Zambia. I jumped on the sidewalk to avoid laden, transport trucks and hopped behind a couple women with baskets on their heads, admiring the sexy hipsway that accompanied their walk. Meanwhile, I cringed under the weight of my backpacks and sweated, regretting the three layers of leggings, legwarmers and multiple shirts that I piled on back in the cold of Johannesburg. We walked across a rusted bridge, waived away the men trying to get me to bungee jump off of it and took a picture of the waterfall as I straddled the country line between Zimbabwe and Zambia. I repeated the border control procedure, then looked around the dirt parking lots for a phone to call my hostel. Someone directed me to the police station where a couple guys my age lounged outside in broken recliner office chairs. Eager for a distraction, they offered to help, “take a seat, take a seat”. I carefully balanced myself on a stool, and kept my bags close, since the guys advised me that the baboons that circled around us loved to steal things. Time flew as the guys gave me recommendations for my time in Zambia, advised me to check out their grandfather’s mountain resort (“you can stay for free”), taught me a few Tonga phrases and drooled with envy at my life. Kelly, the guy in the police officer, begged, “take me with you! I can fit in your backpack!”, he insisted as he yanked off his shoes and emulated climbing in. After about an hour, I remembered my mission and we called up my hostel. “What happened? He was waiting for you at the airport all afternoon. Usually we don’t pick people up from the border but we’ll send him along”. The driver came, and the two police station boys didn’t let me go without big hugs, elaborate handshakes and determined reassurance, “Katie, you’ll stay at the backpackers? Two days? We will visit you!” After welcoming me with a cheek-to-cheek smile, the driver explained the confusion. Apparently he had been waiting at the Livingstone Airport… “we looked up your flight information- Hahn Airways arrival at 15:10 from Johannesburg. There were no planes landing at 15:10 and we never heard of that airline. We thought you might be arriving on a private jet, but even then it would be registered”. He dropped me at the hostel but not without a wink and a “what are you doing tonight?”. “Well, I definitely owe you a beer for waiting for me all day,” I replied. We made plans to meet back up and I entered the...

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

Overall Impressions & Advice For Traveling Vietnam

For those of you who have read my other posts about Vietnam, I’ve had mixed feelings about my two weeks here. For some context before I dive into my overall impressions, I was initially hoping to spend this time in Myanmar, exploring a country that recently opened up to foreign travelers before it got too touristy. I had to fit the trip into specific dates before my teaching gig in China and when looking at flights, Myanmar would be much more expensive and require more plane transfers and time spent in airports. I decided I might as well see Vietnam, which eluded my prior trip to Southeast Asia because of Visa requirements, and finish off the region and visit without paying a penny for flights. So that’s why I’m here, wishing I spent the extra time and money on Myanmar. I think I would have liked Vietnam better if I was younger and less familiar with the region but this country is a well-trodden journey through the Southeast Asian backpacker trail and it was hard to avoid getting caught up in all that entails. First, the hostels are full of backpackers from the UK and Australia and vacationers from Korea.  Most travelers come here on summer break or a gap year between school, attracted by cheap booze and beaches, so the average age is around 20-22. Some of the people I saw looked barely old enough to drive a car, never mind travel around foreign countries. Since this many people’s virgin foray into foreign travel, the whole country is set up to shuttle people up or down the prescribed route from North to South. Everyone and their mother wants to sell you cheap trips to Halong Bay and Sapa, and since budget conscious people (me included!) just look for the cheapest price, I found most of the tours to be lots of people packed in small spaces with tour guides who can barely speak English and don’t even attempt to explain what you’re seeing. A typhoon in Halong Bay and my failure to just postpone the trip instead of listen to the travel agent and replace it with mediocre day tours, caused my week in the North to be back-to-back tours which are generally something I only sign up for as a last resort. Perhaps if you pay more, you’ll have a better experience. For me, traveling that way is a bit superficial and unsatisfying, however it’s often the easiest and cheapest way to get to these places if you don’t speak the language to get good taxi rates. If you have limited time, I’d recommend sticking to the North. Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi were all highlights for me and give a good sense of an urban experience as well as some of the most beautiful nature in the country. Hoi An, in central Vietnam, is usually the universal favorite. It’s a cultural city with cute yellow buildings, a river flowing through it and some of the best shopping in the country but definitely touristy. I had my most powerful experiences in the South of the country with the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Cu Chi Tunnel tour, which is a half-day trip from Saigon. As much as read about the Vietnam war, watched travel shows about other people experiencing these exact same tours, the extensive scope of the devastation to both sides never sank in until I saw these two things myself. One of the most surprising things about this trip and knowing the history is that no one, anywhere in the country seemed to hold the slightest bit of resentment against me, being an American. Seeing photographs of people and villages destroyed and the atrocious aftermath of chemical warfare (Agent Orange) made me uncomfortable to be an American here.  It was truly heart wrenching for both sides.   I couldn’t believe the lack of lingering bitterness over something that many middle-aged or older people in Vietnam had to live through. I really wanted to get a local perspective on this but the Vietnamese couchsurfer who walked with me through the War Remnants museum and the other locals I asked, feigning incomprehension and/or dismissing my questions with “I’m-not-going-to-talk-about-this” smiles. The hard to overcome cultural barriers was another reason Vietnam wasn’t my favorite place to travel. People of Vietnam are “friendly” and there’s always someone around who speaks enough English to get your immediate needs met/sell you things (even in the middle of Halong Bay) but the culture is much more reserved. As much as I tried to talk to locals, I rarely got any meaningful information with three surprising exceptions: I spent...

Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

“I don’t know if it was just the shock of the new, or a fascination waiting to be discovered, but something about Israel and the Middle East grabbed me in both heart and mind. I was totally taken with the place, its peoples and its conflicts. Since that moment, I have never really been interested in anything else. Indeed, from the first day I walked through the walled Old City of Jerusalem, inhaled its spices, and lost myself in the multicolored river of humanity that flowed through its maze of alleyways, I felt at home. Surely, in some previous incarnation, I must have been a bazaar merchant, a Frankish soldier perhaps, a pasha, or at least a medieval Jewish chronicler.” -Thomas L. Friedman Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know anything about politics but anything that has to do with the Middle East inevitably gets political.  I openly admit I’m not even remotely an expert on this issues so I’ll do my best to convey what I’ve witnessed and heard and have no intentions of making strong political proclamations.  I’ll try to base most of my claims in pictures. Israel… what a place.  This modern state feels like an idealogical pre-teen in shoes too big for her feet, blowing bubbles and dispensing free hugs outside a supermarket while the world falls apart around it.  I don’t know if that’s a good metaphor.  It’s one of the strangest places I’ve been and despite all my efforts to figure out this country, it’s still hard to articulate why.  Obviously, some of the weirdness comes from the founding principles of the nation: as one of the youngest countries designated as a Jewish State in 1948 to be as a home for people persecuted from everywhere.  So it houses an incredibly random crowd, from really Orthodox Jews with curls by their ears, to post-army, pot-loving people with strange piercings to non-religious Jews who are proud of their past but barely visit the synagogue.  In its 60 years of existence, it has quickly become home people of various backgrounds, languages, cultures and foods.  Most occupants are Jewish, with American or European heritage. But then there’s Arabs, most of whom are Muslim but there’s Arab Christians, Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic.  Part of this tremendous diversity is reflected in the food, which features falafel, hummus, kebab and sabich (my new favorite- an eggplant, hummus, tahini, boiled egg, parsley pita creation) from the Middle East, couscous and grilled meats from North Africa but also schnitzel and pastries from Jews that fled Old World Europe. So it’s a bit disorienting to be in a place with all these random people running around, all kind of loud and obnoxious and in your face, the Israeli way.  There’s Orthodox Jews hitchhiking.  Female, teenage soldiers putting on blush and lipstick while wearing army uniforms.  Schoolboys in yarmulkes elbowing each other to get into the synagogue in a boisterous buzzing pack. Crazy drivers, so much noise, but if you speak above a whisper on a bus… how dare you?!?! (I got yelled at three times haha).  All of this insane activity is set to a backdrop of a Mediterranean coast which implies relaxation but it’s hard to relax when you’re constantly going through checkpoints and there’s kid soldiers everywhere. Speaking of soldiers, security is yet another one of the many contradictions in Israel.  Based on my past encounters with Israeli security, Israel is one of the most tightly monitored and controlled countries (rightfully so!).  Despite being so uptight that they would not let me leave the country with my travel sized contact solution, when it comes to day-to-day operations, Israeli police are surprisingly laid back.  Drinking in public is supposedly illegal but it’s common to see people drinking at the beach or on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv (I don’t know how anyone can afford to drink at a bar, with beers usually starting at $7 for ~0.33 liters).  Marijuana is also supposedly off-limits but according to my friend, “everyone smokes pot” and clubs are clogged with it.  Graffiti is still illegal but municipal authorities usually turn a blind eye.  Furthermore, it’s no secret that most Israelis can successfully schmooze their way of speeding tickets and other minor violations with the local police. And then there’s the infrastructure.  Certain aspects of Israel are extremely modern and Westernized. As a country in a barren desert with few natural resources and water supply, the people had to be creative to survive and they are.  Israel has the largest number of startups per capita and the highest proportion of scientists, engineers and technicians worldwide.  Israeli companies have invented voice mail, anti-virus software, Uber app, electronic vehicle batteries, Video On Demand, and the list goes on and on… While this list (and the high...

Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Peru Travel Tips And Tricks Part 1: Cusco Area

Between having a dissertation to finish in the next month and a half, jobs to apply for and a million other things to do and only one hand to type with, I won’t be able to write as much about my trip to Peru as I would like to. Peru is a colorful, spirited and incredibly diverse country. In two weeks, we visited desert, beach, cloud forest and islands on the highest-altitude lake in the world.   If we had more time, we could visit the jungle, more beaches up north and/ or the Colca canyon, famous for its Condors. Peru is also an incredible bargain when it comes to tours, food and accommodation (especially outside of Cusco… anything related to Machu Picchu will be more expensive). Peruvians are quieter and more reserved than I expected from people of South America, but still warm and friendly. Huffington Post recently published an article where Peru placed 9 on their list of 15 top countries to visit in 2015, claiming the country will reach levels of culinary excellence akin to Thailand or France (I’m not sure what the French would say about that). Peru is still developing so especially in cities like Puno, most restaurants appear a bit dingy, potentially unclean, causal mom-and-pop operations and it took my brother and I a little while to warm up to the chicken and rice- based diet (especially since he got sick early on). But toward the end, we began to appreciate the fresh seafood, zesty dishes with an incredible flavor without being drowned in spice. It’s not the healthiest food but quite satisfying, especially when paired with an energizing, citrusy Pisco Sour or, my brother’s new addiction, the radioactive yellow Inca Cola. At the very least, I thought I’d share the two-week itinerary for the trip my brother and I just completed and non-trivial Peru travel tips and tricks we learned along the way. First, if you are planning your own trip to Peru, wait to book most of your tours until you arrive in the country. If you plan to trek the Inca Trail, securing a permit will need to be done months in advance (unless you go in the rainy season like we did, but I don’t know if I’d recommend that). You’re better off waiting for everything else (for example, tours of Lake Titicaca, bus transfers from Cusco to Puno, desert fun in Huachachina/ Paracas) since there’s a million tourist companies everywhere and prices will be three times cheaper booked in person, instead of online. Furthermore, tour companies have basically synched what they offer so you could pay a little more for a faster boat or a smaller group but basically all the tours follow the exact same schedule and take you to the same places. In almost every country I travel these days, I usually just withdraw money from the ATM (I have a Charles Schwab Checking Account with no foreign transaction fees) but Peruvian ATMs charges 12-14 sols for each withdrawal (~3 sol= $1 USD) so you might be better off bringing cash to exchange. Peru also has incredibly varied weather that can change quickly so when they tell you to dress in layers, they aren’t kidding. We went in mid/late January so it was hot, sunny and dry in Lima, Paracas and Ica, and the strong sun made sun protection important. In Cusco and Puno, it was the rainy season and weather could change from blue skies and hot (because of the high altitude, the sun is also very strong here, even if it feels cooler) to cold and rainy in the blink of an eye. In general, it’s not worth trying to look pretty in these cities- everyone is in hiking boots, wearing practical layers and a backpack with rain gear and sun protection. Day 1: Cusco. Everyone recommends that visitors to Machu Picchu spend a day or two tin Cusco to acclimate to the high altitude (3300 m above sea level) and explore the “center/naval” of the ancient Incan empire. We took altitude pills prior to arrival so we had no major problems with nausea and lightheadedness but we did notice getting winded really easily. Mint tea, coca leaves and rude water are local remedies that can help if you don’t have pills (I read somewhere that smelling lime or your armpits also helps haha. It’s a rather small, incredibly historic city with gorgeous nature and fresh air easily accessible beyond city limits. We arrived around 11 AM, walked around the main plazas (Plaza de Armas) and cathedral in the city center and headed up the hill to the Sacsayhuaman ruins,...