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...

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...

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

Travel Jordan: Ancient Cities, Otherworldly Desert and Arab Hospitality

“Match me such a marvel save in Eastern clime, A rose red city half as old as time” -Dean Burgon Southern Jordan is a place that deserves to be described in haiku or serenaded with custom-composed symphonies.  Movie directors have discovered its magic and chose its otherworldly landscape to film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, the Mummy Returns and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen because who needs a movie set when nature created something infinitely more epic than Disney could ever design?  At the same time, sun rays shining through wildflowers created dancing shadows terracotta rock walls and set rust red sand on fire.  Throughout the years, rain and wind cut incredibly intricate carvings in the walls, creating abstract shapes infinitely more amazing than the man-made hieroglyphs left by ancient inhabitants. To add another layer of mystery and excitement, one of my favorite parts of walking around Petra was imagining what it was like in its hey day.  What is now an abandoned city hidden at the edge of the Arabian desert was once a lively hub for trade caravans. The canyon walls created a naturally fortified rest station for traders and became the crossroads for the people moving spices, swords and precious metals from 100 BE to 200 CE.  The intricate Greek column cravings, massive theaters, Egyptian ornamentation testify to how profitable owning this land was to the Nabataeans.  Even today, archeologists and scientists puzzle over the construction of these enormous city structures carved into rock The well-preserved opulent facades make difficult to imagine having to abandon such a magnificent structure.  During Roman rule, sea-based routes re-routed trade away from Petra.  Multiple earthquakes in 363 and 551 disrupted the water management system which caused many of the last remaining inhabitants to abandoned the area before the Arabs conquered it. Lucky for us (but not people who work here), Petra was relatively deserted so we were free to roam the 250 acre park alone with our imaginations.  We crawled into caves, wandered off the beaten paths to an abandoned temple where a dog was guarding her pups, climbed a lot of stairs to the monasteries and a few more to test out both sites which claim to be, in screaming black letters, “the best viewpoint in Petra”.  Both the nature and the architecture in this park were so mindblowingly beautiful, it was hard to tell what I liked more…. when the two combine, it culminates in creating one of the most incredible places I have ever been.  Then, to add to the natural splendor, you have an exotic parade bedouins wandering around with camels, donkeys decked out in Rastafarian blankets and other trinkets to make them attractive to tourists… I loved every minute of it!  Just a word of warning to the wise: people offer blitz tours of Petra from Israel or day trips which combine Petra and Wadi Rum from Amman, but having just a couple hours for this place is not enough!  We stayed close to Petra and were able to hike all the major trails in the park between 8 AM-5 PM but with more time, I heard it’s possible to hike to Little Petra and further explore the outskirts.  I highly encourage you not to rush your time here! The other must-do is Wadi Rum, a natural protected site and amazing desert.  We explored it through a 4×4 desert exploration and camping tour.  Around every corner, the desert had different epic landscapes.  I’ll let my pictures do the talking since words can not describe how amazing it was. Since the Arab Spring, tourism has decreased significantly in Petra and Wadi Rum, an UNESCO site that many consider one of the 7 New World Wonders.  Our desert tour guide explained that despite it being the high season for tourism in Jordan, the maximum number of people staying in the Bedouin camps are around 70 when a decade or so ago, the camps would have reached a maximum capacity of 200.  While we didn’t mind having the magnificence of the Treasury to ourselves, it was kind of sad realizing how significantly media’s footage of violence in the Middle East can impact the livelihoods of people working in an industry in a place where things are completely safe, the vast majority of the time. Sure, it’s not the best country to hang out in booty shorts.  Amman, the capital city, isn’t the best place to get drunk and dance.  But who needs nightlife when you can take selfies with camels? If you avoid the Middle East based on the media distorting reality or based on the advice from ignorant people, you will be the one missing out. Song of the Moment: Indiana Jones Theme...

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...

Miyajima Island And Hiroshima Attractions In Japan’s Hippie City

Miyajima Island And Hiroshima Attractions In Japan’s Hippie City

Ok, so “the Hippie City” may not be Hiroshima’s official nickname but what could be more appropriate for a place that proclaims peace from the rooftops, is covered in rainbow blankets of paper cranes and has extreme flower power from omni-present gardens! After teaching a nuclear science course for years, I felt it would be a travesty to come to Japan without seeing the atomic bomb memorials so that’s why I ended up in Hiroshima. While you can easily cover the major city attractions in an afternoon, I found Hiroshima has something to offer everyone- large parks, beautiful waterfront views, excellent shopping and nightlife. And I found Hiroshima attractions to be very walkable. There’s street cars if you need extra speed but everything I wanted to visit was quite close. I think my visit to Hiroshima was rather typical so I don’t have a tremendous amount of insider tips to add. I started by wandering around the sculptures and gardens at the Peace Park, the A-bomb dome to commemorate the epi-center then visited the Atomic Bomb memorial museum (cheapest museum in Japan so far for 50 yen admission!). The museum wasn’t huge but it was poignant and moving and sometimes gross. You could see the tattered clothing of school children fried by the blast, shadows on steps from someone vaporized by the heat, pieces of skin and tongues containing cancerous growths resulting from radiation exposure. The exhibits made me tear up because for a relatively small country, Japan has had more than its share of tragedy: two atomic bombs, a nuclear power plant disaster and countless earthquakes, tsumnis, volcanoes and typhoons. As with all countries, Japan isn’t perfect but it’s uplifting to see a site that witnessed such devastation into a beautiful spot of peaceful reflection, that really makes you appreciate being alive. After the museum, I headed to Okonomi-mura, an international food hall in search of Okonomiyaki, the area’s famous dish. I headed up the stairs and pulled up a barstool at a packed, hole-in-the-wall place where students, couples and businessmen sat around a sizzling metal hot plate. Two chefs worked furiously to feed everyone with towering stacks of cabbage, bean sprouts, soba noodles, pork and egg. I later learned the dish originated sometime after WWII, when people mixed US Army flour rations with water, spread it on a hot plate and sprinkled it with spring onion. Now people like to stuff it with all the things I mentioned above and it makes an incredibly hearty and delicious meal. To work off some of my full stomach, I waddled off to Shukkein Gardens to witness whether gardens in Japan look anything like the Japanese Gardens I’ve visited in the West. I wasn’t disappointed. The whole gardens were arranged around a beautiful reflecting pond, which hosted lazily paddling turtles, greedy larger-than-life coi fish and even a few herons. Adorable arched bridges encouraged me to get closer to the waterfowl and there were plenty of gazebos to kick back and relax. After reviving my inner-Zen amongst the lily pads, I looped around to Hiroshima Castle, Gokuku-jinga Shrine and Central Park. You can pay to get closer to the castle (which is highly unnecessary) but the rest of the park is free to explore and the grounds behind the fort structure are quite extensive. On my way back, I found a small sculpture garden associated with Hiroshima Museum of Art and enjoyed the elephant found and giant, gleaming silver goddess. Miyajima Island Less than an hour away from Hiroshima city center, you can be transported to the magical, mystical island of Miyajima, supposedly one of the top three scenic spots in this country. It’s also a pilgrimage spot for rice lovers, since you can find the world’s largest rice scoop in the O-shamoji stop, if that’s on your bucket list. The postcard-perfect image of Miyajima is the vermillion Oh-torri Gate, perched on the Seto Inland Sea, welcoming visitors to the island. These torri gates usually signify the boundary between sacred land where gods live and non-sacred land, which is why you often find them at entrances to shrines. Although I knew what to expect, the combination of those gleaming gates and the glistening sea against a mountainous background, approach the island did feel like entering somewhere holy. When you land, you’ll encounter deer roaming everywhere, cheerfully munching on grass or bathing in river streams, not even disturbed in the slightest by foreign tourists. I started at the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (actually the whole island earned UNESCO recognition), which is one exception to the“Shinto shrines are free” rule but it’s worth...