Adventures of A “Muzugo” in Malawi

Adventures of A “Muzugo” in Malawi

One of the most common misconceptions people have about Africa is “all of Africa is the same”. Almost every time I cross borders overland, I’m amazed at the kind of changes that some imaginary line can introduce. Malawi was no different. First, I noticed an increase in population density (Malawi has almost 14 million people in just 118,000 square kilometers compared to Zambia which has about the same population in an area seven times the size). While nothing seems crowded after my month in China, there was a consistent string of little villages, to an extent that it made finding a lunch spot or even a non-discreet bush toilet a challenge even for our driver TK has been perfecting his picnic spot spotting abilities for over a decade. The Land Where People Materialize Out of Thin Air Our first day in Malawi he picked a place that fit two out of three usual characteristics (clean, shaded, away from villages)… or so he thought. When we unpacked the first couple chairs, we saw one kid peeking curiously from the road. Before we knew it, a dozen of his friends gathered, shyly hiding behind a dead tree but very blatantly watching our every move. “Ignore them, ignore them” said Nikka, as he quickly chopped carrots, since Nomad Adventures has a policy against giving leftover food to villagers since word travels fast and they don’t want the locals to expect a free feast every time they see a truck. A few minutes after the young children started gathering, a herd of cow hopped over the hill made by the elevated train tracks. The teenage herdsman paused to investigate what we were doing but seemed to decide, regretfully, that he should follow his cows. Tailing the bovines came another clump of preteen boys wielding small wooden clubs accompanied by mangy dogs. They surrounded us, spaced out in the nearby field, watching us hungrily between the tall grasslands. “Oh goodness. It looks like we might be the ones eaten at this meal”, one of the Belgians commented. Nikka’s chopping accelerated audibly and we awkwardly clutched empty water bottles and nervously looked around for potential defense weapons. After ten or so minutes, the preteens got bored and the hunting party moved on but the first clump of young kids didn’t move an inch until our truck left them in a dust cloud. “Sharing is Caring”: Relentless Entrepreneurs Who Convince You to Strip Time and time again, this lesson that “empty spaces in Malawi aren’t actually empty” seemed reinforced. You go for a swim at the beach of Lake Malawi and one guy appears to welcome you to his country. Before you know it, his brother, Happy, joins the group. Then it’s his cousin “Name is William. Business name is Georgie Peorgie”. Another kid pushes them aside to hold our hands. “I’m No Hassle. Come into my shop. T.I.A. (“This Is Africa”)… free looks and you have all day”. Another doesn’t wait until we finish our swim and dives into the water and pulls out a handful of bracelets for sale (still not sure how he kept them dry). You tell them you don’t have any money and this excites them more. “Hakuna Matata. No problem. What do you have to trade? Maybe your watch? Sharing is caring!”. These twenty year olds are relentless and successfully had us stripping and swapping T-shirts, hats, socks and headphones for their woodcarvings, bracelets and necklaces. I ended up trading an old digital camera for two custom tailored pants and a magnet. While I’m sure I could have bartered harder, it provided an afternoon of activity, which involved marching around the village to pick out the fabric, finding two tailors (sharing is caring!), meet the boy’s mother and his friends… etc. The Wild West of Africa? Malawi mystified me in other ways. The buildings looked better constructed than in Zambia but the small towns gave off an eerie deserted feel like an old Wild West mining town (especially because they have “Gold Depot” shops). The paint was faded or peeling and chunks of the buildings seem to have been broken off. Many of the structures had boarded up windows and doors, with tattered sheets blowing in the breeze. Locals would be hanging out at one or two shops, or shooting pool at an outdoor billiard table under a thatched roof. The other half was completely deserted, as if haunted by ghosts. I was especially entranced by the “tea shops” I found in every town. “People in these parts can’t possibly be drinking enough tea to warrant a shop”, I thought to myself. When I asked the tour...

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

One reason I avoid traveling Europe is because of the price tags. I arrived in Vienna, Austria and stopped at a souvenir shop pretty early on as I tried to do my daughterly duty by picking out a magnet for my father’s collection. Seeing that it cost 5 euros confirmed all of my intentions to avoid Western Europe like the plague. However, luckily for me, I had two knowledgeable locals to give me a blitz tour of the city, and beyond the 7.60 euros I paid for a 24-hour transportation pass, I was pleased to find most of the attractions didn’t cost anything at all! Entrance to most of the city’s churches, markets, gardens, parks and galleries are free. You don’t need to spend money like royalty to feel like it in Austria, just visit these free attractions in Vienna.  From nature to classic architecture to more modern buildings, there’s something for everyone especially if you time your visit to coincide with free concerts and events. 1) Schonbrunn Gardens and Palace (Free open-air concert in June!) You will have to hop on the metro to get here but make sure you visit this sunshine yellow palace, Austria’s most visited site. Colossal, cheery and picturesque, I was surprised to learn these are only the summer residences of the Austrian royal family, including empress Sisi, whose beauty started wars. While you need to pay to tour the inside of the palace, you can easily spend a day exploring its vast gardens which are so big that people go jogging here! If you zig-zag up the hill, you will also find a beautiful view of the city. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna in June, the palace hosts a free concert by the world famous Vienna Philharmonic. Although I couldn’t experience it myself, I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting to listen to a symphony than surrounded by roses, pruned bushes and fishponds. 2) St. Stephan’s Cathedral & Surrounding Downtown St. Stephan’s is the symbol of Austria’s capital city and is located in the heart of the downtown. Its towers soar high over the city and it contains one of the biggest free-swinging church bells in Europe. I found the interior to be a little dark and dreary but I loved the building’s colorful roof tiles, which were laid to depict the royal coat of arms of the city. I also enjoyed the costumed interpreters in knee socks, wigs and velvet jackets who try to invite you to the Opera. Nearby, explore Vienna’s famous shopping streets that emanate out from the cathedral and Hofburg, the imperial palace. You can peek at some old ruins and walk under its impressive entrance… just don’t get run over by the horse-drawn stage coaches that regularly pass through! While you’re here, stop at Demel, one of Vienna’s oldest bakeries, and splurge on a slice of sachertorte. Desserts are a highlight of Austrian cuisine and this chocolate cake with apricot jam is its crown jewel. You’ll feel like royalty especially when you enjoy it in this elegant setting. 3) Opera Vienna is a city with a rich musical heritage that works hard to maintain its reputation. Partly by housing one of the most famous and busiest opera houses in the world, with shows changing almost weekly. The building is massive and something to marvel at from the outside. However, with 3 or 4 euros and a little extra time, you can actually see an opera for yourself! If you show up 90 minutes before the show, you can buy standing room tickets, high in the balcony but the acoustics are good everywhere. 4) Parliament & Rathaus (City Hall) Walk through City Hall park and find yourself in front of the mammoth, neo-Greek style Parliament building. I’ve seen many parliaments and I’m not sure why Austria’s needs over 100 rooms but it sure is impressive. Speaking of grand buildings, just down the road is Rathaus, the most extravagant City Hall you ever will see. It has gothic towers that make it look like a cathedral and outside, you will find rotating exhibits. When I was there, there was a miniature circus (and even one of the nearby statues wore a red nose for the occasion) but I hear it has excellent places to get Gluhwein, mulled spiced wine, in the winter.  Because of these rotating attractions, it’s even fun to visit after dark (I never thought I’d say that about a City Hall)!  According to my host, the hall has also hosted free Playstation 4 video-game-a-thons but if you aren’t in town to catch something like that, you can go on a free City...

Goodbye, Land of the Rising Sun: 10 favorite things about traveling in Japan

Goodbye, Land of the Rising Sun: 10 favorite things about traveling in Japan

As my two week journey in Japan wraps up, I admit I’ve grown quite fond of the Land of the Rising Sun.  It’s not a place that really matches my travel style– I like traveling in less-developed countries where different cultures meet and whose locals are more friendly and open– and some things drive me crazy (the lack of trash cans, the crowds of tourists, the way people look like zombies on the train, not very walkable cities…).  Despite those annoyances, there’s something positively huggage about this country, where everything is safe and everyone bows to each other.  Since physically hugging Japanese people would probably frighten them, instead I compiled a list of my favorite ten things about traveling in Japan, as my little love song this shy and humble country. 1) Excessive Amounts of Cuteness Japan is the land of bowties, ruffles, pastel colors and grown-ups who carried around stuffed creatures. Tokyo City, University of Tokyo and Tokyo’s top attractions have their own cartoon characters that smile and invite you to take selfies with them and want to be bought as charms for your cell phone. There are smiling, meticulously dressed shop girls in pigtails cooing “konnichawaaaaa…” as a siren song to invite you into their stores or restaurant. People in advertisements sparkle with a magical glow as they skip around in the sunshine, reaching almost disturbing levels of adorableness. 2) Signs That Make You Smile The average Japanese people you meet on the street can be a little standoff-ish, shy and hard to get to know but happy-go-lucky signs around the city reveal their unspoken good intentions. After briefly chatting with my barista at Starbucks, I received my coffee with a handwritten, “Have a good day in Japan!”, complete with a crooked smilie face. A bright yellow sign outside a Laundromat on my walk to the University proclaims unquestioningly “Today is a Good Day!”. A sign amidst a small patch of flowers on a random busy street in Roppongi urges passerbys “Let a flower bloom in your heart”. Simple messages like these remind me to appreciate the small things. 3) Appreciation of Art & Music From flower arrangements to calligraphy to free handmade origami creations outside the currency exchange at the airport, the Japanese appreciate quiet, simple and profound expressions of beauty. I often found elderly people making their own art with watercolors at the lake in Hakone, a dingy under-the-bridge bar street in Tokyo and even at on a university campus. In addition to an appreciation of art, they value classical music (which I appreciate much more than the awful J-Pop whose popularity I don’t really understand). During my time in Tokyo, I stumbled upon many free concerts that caused busy business to hang up their cell phones, put away their tablets and appreciate the music. Volvo sponsored a lunchtime concert every afternoon at the Shiodome, a shopping mall sponsored Japanese kids singing Broadway tunes and even the Robot Restaurant (a gaudy, touristy, un-classy place where Japanese girls battle automatons in their bikinis) put on a piano and flute concert while people waited for the real show to begin. 4) It’s Always Naptime! As someone who missed their entire felucca cruise in Cairo because I fell asleep immediately upon entering, the Japanese have an impressive ability to sleep anywhere and everywhere. Sitting, standing, in trains and buses, at bus stops… someone always has their eyes closed. Since Japan is so safe, you can sleep soundly knowing your wallet won’t get stolen or your cell phone swiped and auditory announcements regularly announce your location in Japanese and English to decrease the chances of you missing your stop. 5) Japanese Kids in School Uniforms Japanese kids are absolutely precious, especially when dressed in school uniforms. Every school and age group seems to have a different outfit with extensive accessories. Almost all kids have hats- I’ve seen sunny yellow caps with brims like duck-bills, suede bowling hats, floppy fisherman’s hats and peppy athletic baseball caps, all snugly secured with a chin strap. I’ve seen grey fleece Harry Potter capes, Scottish kilts, lots of knee socks and marching band pants. It’s so much fun to watch teachers try to control an energetic swarm of similarly-dressed school children with mischievous grins on their faces and ants in their pants. 6) Japanese Fashion, in General You’ll have to check out my people-watching post, which pays tribute to all the latest Tokyo trends, for details but walking the streets of Japan never gets old. Males and females rock platform shoes and it brings me back to the 90s when the Spice Girls reigned supreme. Japanese grannies sport rainbow colored workout wear with...

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 2: Asheville, Raleigh and Philadelphia

Southern Soul Road Trip: Dance And Eat Your Heart Out Part 2: Asheville, Raleigh and Philadelphia

Part II of the road trip went through North Carolina which has been my stomping grounds for the past four years as a graduate student.  Asheville is the perfect mountain getaway for fresh air, good beer and wacky people.  Tourists do not usually flock to Raleigh but there’s a lot of free, fun stuff if you know where to look (and thanks to me, you’ll get some good tips!).  This was our first stop in Philadelphia for years and we only had an afternoon to spend but it’s a fun, blue-collar, down-to-earth city, covered in colorful murals and mosaics, cobblestone streets and interesting neighborhoods. Asheville, NC: • Nine Mile Restaurant: A vegetarian-friendly, Caribbean fusion restaurant and one of my favorite places to eat on the planet.  The restaurant is in more of a residential area of Asheville and has a low-key atmosphere with reggae music spreading the love. Stop by for lunch served from 11:30-5 for generous portions of gourmet pasta and rich dishes.  Two of my favorites (I’ve been to this restaurant three times) are Soon Come (fresh sliced bananas, apples, currents & grilled pineapples, sautéed with white wine, butter & pumpkin spice- tossed with cheese stuffed tri-colored tortellini and onions) and the Empress Menen Salad (apples, toasted almonds, chickpeas, smoked gouda and house tempeh with sesame garlic tahini dressing). • Bend and Brew yoga:  Beer and yoga?  You can find almost any activity paired with beer in Beer City USA, known as the “hoppiest place on earth” with the largest number of microbreweries per capita.  A traveling yoga teacher offers a 1-hour beginning yoga class followed by samples at a local brewery.  We participated in the Tuesday 5:30 PM class at Highlander Brewery.  Highlander is one of the biggest breweries in Asheville and its right next to Asheville Distilling Company where you can get a free tour and tasting, fridays and saturdays at 5 and 6 PM.  If you want to skip the yoga, definitely check out The Wedge brewery in the River Arts District.  The extensive lawn, lawn games and art galleries near by makes it one of my favorite places to hang out.  For even more suggestions on how to have fun with beer, check out #12 on the “unusual beer experiences in the USA” article I wrote for Epicure & Culture. • Pritchard Park: It’s a small park in the middle of downtown but it’s a magnet for Asheville’s famous weirdos.    You can find jugglers, free hugs and people adorned in leather assembles challenging you to chess matches.  It also hosts a friday drum circle from ~5-10 PM which is a great way to satisfy your inner tribal creature. • Moob Music Factory: Moog Music synthesizers and other electronic musical instruments are designed and lovingly handcrafted in the Moog factory in downtown Asheville, N.C and they open their factory and showroom to the public for tours and playtime.  I stopped by to play with these motion detector instruments, inspired by Soviet security alarms.  The staff is knowledgeable and fun and it’s all free. • French Broad Chocolates: I’ve had friends that come to Asheville just to stock up on chocolates and baked goods from this factory.  Their Factory & Tasting Room is now offering 1.5 hour tours on Saturdays at 11am which take you through the entire process from cacao harvest and fermentation to chocolate bar, as well as backstage access to the facility, and an in depth tasting of our chocolate for  $10.00 (reservations recommended!).  Even if you can’t go on the official tour, you can visit the factory for daily self-guided tours from 2-5:30pm or just stop by to get a sugar rush of yumminess. • Art Loeb Trail:  This 30.1 mile trail is one of the longest (but most popular) in North Carolina.  Many people backpack and spend 2-3 nights on the trail but we hiked section 3 as a day hike.  The most popular section of the trail has spectacular views of the valley, transverses several mountain balds and ends in the Shining Rock wilderness.   When we went in mid-October, the post-summer wild flowers made the hike especially memorable.  It’s an unmarked trail but we encountered plenty of people so the route was relatively obvious. • Stay in a teepee (Eagle Rock Cove, Swannoanoa):  Slightly outside of Asheville, but if you’re looking for a cheap way for alternative mountain living, check AirBnB for unique housing accommodations including this tipi.  The owner, Everest, is undergoing a permaculture operation and he’ll be happy to tell you about his mushroom growing and show you his cute little bunny rabbits (which he eats).  I’ve written articles on USA glamping opportunities, where similar accommodations will cost...

Keeping It Classy in Crescent City: 36 Hours in New Orleans, Louisiana

Keeping It Classy in Crescent City: 36 Hours in New Orleans, Louisiana

“Welcome to the wild, wild west. There are no rules,” Lauren shrugs dismissively. It’s an interesting city for sure. Bourbon Street seems to invite you to leave your morals behind, encouraging recklessness with sweet, watermelon flavored hand grenades drinks to loosen your sense of restraint. You wander down the street, nudged by nerdy guys in suits who raise their eyebrows, look you into the eyes, “Titties! A room fulllll of tit-tit-titties!”. If you respond better to commands than personal invitations, a big guy from a competing bar across the street blows into screeching police whistle with bulging eyes and a red face, “Naked ladies! Right here! Right NOW!”. His urgent shouting made it sound like your life depended on taking advantage of this opportunity, as if after tonight, bare breasts would be extinct forever. If titties aren’t your thing, a young black guy silently shoots you a sweet, dreamy smile from a few doors down. You can see sophistication in his face and an intelligent gleam in his eye and you wonder what he’s doing here… until he does a suggestive shimmy and points your eyes down to his bare chest, a cartoon elephant trunk over his junk. He feigns disappointment as you nod “no” but it doesn’t last long as he’s mobbed by a crowd of fifty-year old cougars in red boas and shirts that say, “Aged to perfection”. Another crowd of people dressed in black clustered near a cardboard cross in the middle of street, passing out Bibles and trying to pray over the infidels who evaded their outstretched arms. They duck as people on the balconies try to get them in a celebratory mood by flinging Mardi Gras beads at their heads. We passed a dirt-encrusted, guy in his upper 20’s who wobbled by us, promising to friend us on facebook if we obeyed his cardboard sign command, “Keep me drunk and high”. Behind him, a break in the line of bars reveals a cathedral, adorned with a crucifix-like shadow projected from a spotlight illuminating a watchful Jesus statue. Just like the street cleaners that power wash away the previous night’s debaucheries, most of these people will probably cleanse their souls by walking across soapy streets to piously pray for forgiveness at church the next day. “If I could put my finger on it, I’d bottle it and sell it. I came down here originally in 1972 with some drunken fraternity guys and had never seen anything like it — the climate, the smells. It’s the cradle of music; it just flipped me. Someone suggested that there’s an incomplete part of our chromosomes that gets repaired or found when we hit New Orleans. Some of us just belong here.” – John Goodman It’s easy to drink away your time in New Orleans but make sure to explore the city’s distinct cultural heritage sober too. Here are some suggestions for a more classy, semi-touristy 36-hour itinerary in Saint City. We started our day as most tourists do, with café au lait and beignets at the famous Café Du Monde (800 Decatur St). Is it worth all the hype? Fried dough covered with a mountain of sneeze-inducing powered-sugar is bound to be good, no matter who makes it. A local recommended New Orleans Coffee and Beignet in midtown as a less touristy and tastier alternative, if you’re ok with skipping the famous one (4141 St. Charles Ave, ~$5 for a coffee and 3 beignets). After we were all sugared up, we wandered by the riverfront to watch huge platforms of boats moosy on down the Mississippi. From there, we headed to the National Park Service Jazz Historic Park (916 N. Peters Street) who has a bunch of interesting free programming happening. We just missed the free jazz yoga at 10 AM but we were able to catch the free walking tour of history of jazz at Armstrong Park (710 Rampart St). We learned about the “gumbo” of cultural groups that made up New Orleans: the indigenous native Americans, the French who came down from Canada, the European prostitutes, ex-convicts and misfits that were sent over to populate the swampy, buggy land, Germans hired to build things and Africans brought over to execute everything. We learned the roots of jazz began with gospel, drum circles at Congo Park, brass bands which led to the traditional of jazz funerals. Jazz funerals involved a slow, drudge-like march to the graveyard then a brass band beat after the burial that exponentially attracts the neighbors that culminates in a life-celebrating dance party. Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans, gave birth to jazz when he began stealing the spotlight with extended trumpet...