Remembering the Tragedy and Agony in Auschwitz

March 11th, 2017

PolandTravel Writing Award

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

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Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

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Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

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Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

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The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

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The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

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Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Falling in Love with Paradise-Bantayan Island, Philippines

It was the first white sand beach I ever set foot on. It was known by the locals of Cebu, but not by Manileños, back then. Seeing the island for the first time, in 2001, was like seeing paradise.

My colleague Ritz, who was based in Cebu, told me to spend the weekend there so we could visit one of the islands. I rebooked my flight and we went to the Cebu City North Bus Terminal and boarded a six-hour bus ride to Hagnaya Port in San Remigio. We reached Hagnaya port before lunch time and we ate our lunch while waiting for the ferry boat to Sta. Fe Port. It was an hour-long ferry ride, during which I finally got to see Bantayan island, with its pristine white sands and clear blue waters. And it was love at first sight.

Yes, I fell in love with Bantayan Island, the province of Cebu and the white sand beach. I travelled a lot because of my job, I do side trips to the different cities and provinces that I went to. Bantayan Island has been listed as my number two travel destination in terms of beach, food, resorts and people. I keep on coming back and I would never get tired of going back. It would always be my comfort zone. My first love white beach island. My first ever worthwhile travel and the reason why I started exploring the archipelago and loving my very own country.

I became a beach bum. I don’t mind getting sun-kissed by the sun because luckily I don’t get dark even if I stayed all day into the outdoors. I became fascinated with nature that I started to catch sunrise and chase sunset. I’d talk to locals to understand their history and culture.
There came a time that travelling for me had become a scapegoat. That going to an unknown place is my way of finding myself. Travelling is a way for me to have a peace of mind, to realize that life is not a routine, that I’m getting out of my comfort zone, learning about myself and finding my limits. I would always look forward on my next trip, or plan a trip even two-year ahead.

Everybody has a bucket list. Mine contains all the places in the Philippines where I’d want to go. I’d been doing it since I went to Bantayan Island. I’d crossed the name of the place if I got the chance to see it and add more if I heard of a place worth exploring. This time around my bucket lists are countries I’d want to have my very own adventure.

But yes, I love my country the most. I made sure that before I started globally I could say with pride to everyone that I explored the archipelago. There were only a few places left that I’d want to go to that was still on my list and keep coming back to the usual spots I love. As for the rest of the Philippines, I had memories, stories and experiences I could share. Boarding a plane, a ferry, a boat, a bus, a jeepney, a motorcycle, or whatever means of transportation there is, had become ordinary. Staying in a luxurious hotel, a hostel, an ordinary house or even camping I tried it all. I had my stomach full by eating out in an expensive restaurant, meals offered by locals, food on the streets, the specialty of the place (some places I couldn’t eat their specialty food though.) Every time I’d visit a place whether it’s new or a place I’d been to, I’d always search for a church or a chapel to pray and thank my creator for giving me a wonderful life.

And now, why do I travel? I guess I still have the same reasons when I was only starting: 1. To check my bucket list. 2. To explore the place; the tourist destination, the food, and learn the history and culture. 3. I find myself when I travel. 4. I create memories.
I think, the last reason for me travelling is the greatest of all. To look back years from now, I could say to myself that I’d been there, done that.
And to quote: I haven’t been everywhere but it’s still on my list. So I’d keep on exploring more.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The smell of cow dung assaults my nostrils and my skin is damp in the humidity. Stares of passersby burn holes in my skin and there’s a lump in the back of my throat growing steadily bigger.

This isn’t the India I’d imagined.

I was just 8 years old when this faraway land took hold of my imagination with a strong grip and never quite let go.

My eyes stayed glued to the television set as a curly haired girl about my age sat at the edge of a sparkling, jungle-lined river. Next to her, an elephant drank lazily from clear waters and it was at that moment, while watching “A Little Princess” from a couch in suburbia, which I decided I must go to India.

This was my first experience with a feeling I’d later call wanderlust.

Since cross-Atlantic airplane tickets aren’t easily accessible to second graders, I transported myself to this far-flung place the only way I knew how: by writing about it. From that day forward, I filled tattered notebooks with stories of adventure-seeking monkeys and exotic spices. My stories brought me beyond India, to Brazil, Australia and Ireland.

I’m jerked back into the present moment as rickshaws whiz past me so close I can feel the rush of air they leave in their wake. The sound of car horns is unrelenting, and I wonder what I’m doing here in this place I’ve so obviously romanticized.

I begin walking toward the river, carefully avoiding the murky water that’s collected at the edges of the streets. I pass a group of women walking in a single-file line. Beneath their sandaled feet is a dusty road lined with litter as colorful as the garments they wear.

A reckless rickshaw makes me jump out of the way, and I cringe as my foot splashes in the toxic sludge that’s surely made up of runoff dishwater and sewage.

I’ve finally made it to the water’s edge and I find a somewhat clean patch of concrete on which to perch and continue my observations. The air is thick with a putrid smell I can’t quite recognize. I notice that the brown stream has followed me and I watch as it empties itself into the Ganges, disappearing elusively into the bigger, browner stream. This certainly isn’t the shimmering river in the movie that first captured me, yet there’s something about it that makes the corners of my lips curl upward into a half-smile.

Suddenly, I sense I’m no longer alone. A man dressed in white robes sits next to me and offers a toothy smile. He says something I can’t understand. Seeing I’m confused, he smiles bigger and repeats himself, this time patting his palm on his chest. His name.

“Katie,” I reply. “My name is Katie.”

He closes his eyes and nods, the toothy grin never leaving his face.

My newfound friend points to the left and my eyes follow his gesture. Fires burn and a thick smoke hangs heavy at a cremation ghat just upstream from where we’re sitting. Clusters of men line the river, encircling stretchers that carry the dead. Ceremonial fabrics and flowers cover the bodies, preparing their souls for nirvana.

I turn back to the man and he’s still smiling. He directs my gaze to our right where women stand waist deep in the river, washing large pieces of fabric. More women stand on the steps to collect the garments and lay them on land. I’m reminded of the brown sludge that empties itself into this river and wonder if the garments are getting cleaner or dirtier.

When I turn back, the man is standing. I try to stand but he puts one hand on my shoulder and makes a gesture with the other, telling me to stay for a while. The pressure from his hand disappears, and when I turn around he’s already in the distance with his back to me.

I drink in the colors and images, and I long for that tattered notebook I used to fill with words. Before my eyes, a hundred stories are playing out and suddenly I understand. The brown waters in front of me are a source of livelihood. This is where everyday life is lived and it’s also where life ends in a messy, yet beautiful circle.

This India – with cow dung and toxic-smelling rivers – isn’t what I imagined. But how often are things and people and places just as we picture them? And isn’t one of life’s greatest pleasures the search to find unexpected beauty hiding in brown waters and smelling of cow poo?

Perhaps this India is even more beautiful than the one my imagination conjured up so many years ago, because this India is rough and raw and real. Just like my dreams. Just like life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Fearless Through my European Travel Initiative

You know those people who say, but don’t do? Who wish, but take no action to turn dreams into reality? Though I’ve never been one of those people – always a leader, always a do-er, always one to take the path less traveled and an eternal optimist – there was a certain point in my life I allowed others and circumstances to hold me back from seeing the world.

So when I was presented with a unique opportunity to go to Paris and London seven years ago I had to make it happen. Up until that point I had only dreamed of visiting Europe. But the stars aligned and I was able to fly solo to meet my aunt there for a few days, which was scary and comforting all at the same time. The truth was I didn’t have the money to go. I recall crying with fright in the airport realizing how much those two cities cost wondering if I should turn around and go home. I focused on taking comfort in some financial assistance on the heels of my aunt’s hotel stays, where I was invited to tag along, and went anyway.

Three years after that incredible trip I had the itch to go back. I had a dilemma, or fork in the road: no one would go with me. Friends had the excuses you’d expect (time off from work and lack of money) and I didn’t have a travel companion or relative to meet there. Fearful of falling into the same trap from years prior, this time nothing stood in my way.

I ended up booking a few city visits including Barcelona, Amsterdam, Prague, Bruges, Berlin and London. It was the affirmation of embracing solo travel I needed to give me the confidence to always say “yes” if a travel opportunity ever presented itself.

While the 2009 trip ignited a spark my return in 2012 fueled it into a flame. Never again would I turn down a trip for lack of someone to stand beside me in a museum or sit across from me at a foreign restaurant. The desire was within ME and that was more than enough to press “confirm” on a flight purchase.

I’ve realized travel is my form of magic. It’s the interesting cultures you get to be a part of, or strangers you encounter you would never otherwise meet. It’s the places you’re able to visit if you’re solo because your itinerary is yours alone to determine. I recall sitting alone in a cafe in the Old Town Square in Prague, being grateful for the history surrounding me and feel of warm soup and cold Czech beer entering my body on a chilly day in July. And that’s simply one of hundreds of memories I’m thankful for since that 2009 trip.

That resulting spark grew into a flame and turned into an inferno, which has since led me to spreading my travel experiences through my travel blog, Sometimes Home.

Presented with a fork in the road I chose to go with my heart’s desire and travel the road I selected, recognizing the only thing ever holding any of us back from achieving our dreams is ourselves. I’ve traveled from Europe to Asia to Central America and beyond. I continue to be grateful for the spark that ignited my wanderlust heart and the fuel within myself to keep it burning.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Aguas Calientes is a mountain town in Peru. It’s also Spanish for hot water – which was appropriate as that was where I found myself at the moment.

It was late and our film crew was tired and hungry. I was tired, hungry and worried. The local fixer who had promised me dozens of rooms had desaparecido. Vanished.

It had been a long winding haul up the mountain from the Sacred Valley to this high altitude village, the stopping off point just before the world famous ruins of Machu Picchu.

When the crew spilled from the bus, talking of dinner and sleep, I had checked at the hotel for the fixer and our rooms. There I got the bad news: there was no fixer, no rooms, no vacancy.

I turned back to see the crew pulling their gear off the bus – chatting, laughing, looking forward to some down time. I told them.

They looked at me in stunned silence… for far too long. Maybe they were expecting a punchline or an easy fix. But there were no easy fixes at 8,000 feet on a dark Peruvian mountain in Aguas Calientes.

Stepping Up

So I hit the streets of Aguas Calientes in search of beds for the crew.

As the evening took on a slight chill, my luck began to change. I found a few rooms at one hotel and then another. But people would have to double and even triple up. Something they were not used to.

Tomorrow our documentary would take us further up the mountain to explore Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca city, and a World Heritage Site. Now that was something to dream about tonight.

But the rooms really were awful. And cramped – three or more to a room.

I had barely fallen asleep when I was stirred to half consciousness by the rattle of the loudest air conditioner I had ever heard. Even stranger, I mused in my dreamy state, the room was still hot and muggy.

At dawn I awoke to the sounds of a single dog whimpering and barking, as if it was expecting a reply.

I quickly got dressed as the others awakened. One commented, “Did you hear all that rain last night?” I hadn’t. Not over the constant roar of the air conditioning… Oh… That wasn’t air conditioning, was it. Just the rain beating down on the hotel’s tin roof.

Down at the street a muddy landscape overwhelmed us. Debris was everywhere: TV’s, furniture, clothing – piles of possessions stolen by a thick batter of sludge. What had happened?

The far reaches of the street quickly supplied an answer. Blocks of buildings, businesses and hotels were gone – swept right off their foundations and into the river below by an ungodly wave of mud.

All that was left was an empty, silent space…

We turned to each other with the same thought, “Where are the others?”.

With panicked breath, I took off running, but nothing looked as it should. Train tracks were ripped from their foundation, pointing to the sky, twisted about like pipe cleaners. The force of the mountain collapsing down had been primal and massive.

An alleyway ahead looked familiar. I turned and there was one of our hotels… whole, untouched.
Going inside I blessedly found everyone. They had seen the wreckage and were pale and sobbing. But everyone who was supposed to be there… was there.

Our Luck Held

We did what little we could to help in the muddy remains. We had a satellite phone and used it for communications to the world below.

We also recorded the devastation around us as a record of the tragedy – a sobering reminder of our own good fortune. But some townsfolk were missing. Later we would learn they were gone.

* *
The next day, down the mountain in the Sacred Valley, we joined some locals for a Pachamanca – an ancient Inca cooking ritual. Pachamanca means “earth oven”, in Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.

Potatoes, chicken, yucca, corn and more were lowered into the stone-lined oven set in the ground and baked for several hours. What comes out is a beautiful, smoky, feast.

But a Pachamanca is more than just an ingenious oven. It is a ritual and celebration of life. As we loaded our plates with the rich meal, our hosts explained that placing food into the ground is a sign of respect for the earth.

The earth had provided us with a sumptuous banquet… and had been kind enough to spare us.

So you see how lucky I felt – even in the midst of disaster there is still much to put in the plus column – our lives, our futures, more opportunities to feast, to explore, and more opportunities to wash away the mud.

I would like to think we were a bit more humbled about our place on this mountain. We were certainly more thankful.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surprised by a Gorilla in Uganda

Can you imagine being side-by-side then face-to-face with a mountain gorilla in the jungles of Uganda?

Gorillas in the Mist fascinated me and with sudden impact, created the urge that one day I would see gorillas in the wild. Filled with unprecedented anticipation, I was about to follow in the footsteps of Dian Fossey. $500 deemed a reasonable price to pay for one-hour with the elusive, majestic and near extinct Mountain Gorilla. All one really hopes for is to see a Silverback up close and walk away with one fabulous photo.

Sitting by the lodge fire, in anticipation for the morning to come, I shared a drink with my new friend Karen. We shared our hopes for the following day and I clearly remember saying, “I really want a gorilla to touch me.” A local man joined us and we sat hushed while he strummed his homemade music box, whistling to the sounds of the jungle behind him, tapping his foot on the African earth.

The early morning briefing educated us on the Gorilla’s habitat, dietary needs, familial responsibilities and group hierarchy. Our team would be tracking the “M” group. Mubare was the first habituated gorilla family at Bwindi Impenetrable National Forest bordering the Congo and Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. Anticipating the difficulty of the trek in the hot African sun, my knapsack was well-equipped with necessities including a plastic raincoat to protect me from stinging nettles. My porter Justice was cheerful company and happy to assist in carrying my gear and water up the mountain.

We drove the steep, misty Ugandan slopes, covered by cascading green canopies contrasted by bright blue skies and white, pillowy clouds. When we could drive no further, the trek was underway.

Eventually we stopped to eavesdrop on the radio communication between our guides and trekkers ahead. Mubare was spotted! You could feel the excitement among us. A short time passed before we stopped to suit up and leave our gear. Ahead, only cameras were allowed.

I was first to the rim and with a final pull from the guide… No trees, branches, thickets or trekkers blocking my view. I was feet away from a Silverback in the wild. Mesmerized, staring in awe, I gasped before covering my mouth. He was enormous! A tear welled as he stared my way.

Ruhondeza, the dominant male, named for one who likes to sleep, had a watchful eye and knew everything going on around him. This 5 foot, 450 pound beast climbed a tree so slowly with such grace that the tree barely swayed. It was magnificent. The females followed his every move.

I learned safe calls, similar to clearing your throat with a deep, two-syllable sound like hche hchemmmm. Ruhondeza answered. I communicated with a gorilla!

Kashongo nurtured her infant by licking her finger, tenderly stroking baby’s nose and eyelids to clean them. Wrinkled, pink and hungry, he wailed like any newborn. It was endearing. We learned gorilla babies are named once personalities are formed or when there is an outside sponsorship.

Toppling over one another for the perfect shot, I was the least distracted by another nudge. It was not until the tickle from course fur brushed across my arm and face, that I realized it was a seven year old male black-back passing by.

Spawned by stories told from the others, this young male apparently had an affinity for my right ear and started to nibble. I remember the immediate intensity of fear and stillness as I slowly turned my head to the right to see he had stopped by my side. Face-to-face and literally eye-to-eye, I wanted to reach out which was strictly prohibited. However, I froze not having a clue what to do. He quickly lost interest and sauntered past, but not before leaving his mark. Yes, I was pooped on by a gorilla in the Jungles of Uganda!

The hour flew by and our guides expressed that we had a very special viewing with so much interaction. I certainly felt the impact of the day! Gracious and humbled, my heart was full!

To see me, you don’t think hip-hop girl, or exotic adventure traveler that has ventured through 80+ countries across all 7 continents. I’m a simple, plain Jane, 50 year old, native Californian. But the truth is, travel gives me purpose and defines my identity. I am a World Traveler and my journey will never end! I live for the stories I have to tell and the stories that will unfold.

To Justice, my head porter and crew, thank you for the journey of a lifetime!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Gratitude 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Tasting Vibrant Seafood in Liguria, Italy

Every third Saturday in June is the Sagra dell’Acciuga Fritta in Monterosso al Mare, Liguria. As can sometimes happen with Italian festivals, due to bad weather and lack of fish, it was postponed in 2016. Bad news for locals and travelers who were hoping to attend, but never fear, when in Liguria, anchovies are always near.

If you’ve grown up in the United States, like I have, your idea of anchovies is a bunch of salty, smelly fish packed in oil and stored for god knows how long. They come on top of your pizza or caesar salad and that’s about the only time you see them. On the Ligurian coast of Tuscany, anchovies are a whole lot different. I discovered this last year when I participated in the Mangialonga Levanto with friends Ann & Robin. Anchovies were one of the menu items and it was the food I thought I would like the least, but much to my surprise, I enjoyed it the most! They are served a variety of different ways but the local friggatorie shops make enjoying them a quick and easy meal mixed with other seafood and french fries.

Monterosso al Mare is part of the chain of five, seaside villages known as the “Cinque Terre.” Located in the Italian province of Liguria, the population of the Cinque Terre swells in the summer when tourists from all over the globe come to view its charming villages and natural beauty. The five pastel, jewel-box-like villages cling to the small ports and cliffs along the coastline. You can hike and walk between villages facing various levels of difficulty.

Liguria is a narrow region that follows the coastline of the blue Mediterranean Sea from the border of France south to Tuscany and includes the Maritime Alps and the Ligurian Alps. The only flat parts of the region are where the land touches the sea. Home to the “Italian Riviera,” Liguria has sandy beaches, port cities, fishing villages, mountain villages, and dramatic shoreline cliffs. One of the ancient maritime areas of Italy, the Ligurians are known as great seafarers. Several events take place along the coast between June and September that involve boat regattas. The Ligurian coast is dotted with many seaside villages accessible by train or car; it’s very easy to hop off the train and find yourself surrounded by Italians without a tourist in sight.

Seafood, basil pesto, lemons, farinata and focaccia are the five foods that spring to mind when Liguria is in the travel plan. There are festivals dedicated to each of these items between April and May. Local pesto is made from a blend of fresh basil, parmesan, pecorino, olive oil, pine nuts and garlic and is commonly used on pasta and in soup. Seafood is a main staple of the local diet, and Ligurian tables also include herbs from the mountain hillsides, fruits, and vegetables. A lemon festival takes place in Monterosso each May. Excellent “Take away” Friggatorie (fried food shops) dot the Ligurian Coast and serve freshly caught and fried seafood in a cone. Go on, give ’em a try; these aren’t your fathers anchovies!

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Croatia:  A much needed break of serenity

After many weeks backpacking throughout Europe’s hectic main cities, Croatia came as just the break of serenity I needed.

I went from Budapest to Zagreb in an old train, in which I shared the cabin with a Hungarian girl named Katalin. Thanks to her, I was able to understand that we would be switching trains, and dealing with rather unfriendly immigration officers. We had a long and meaningful talk during the trip. I told her about my Hungarian grandfather, from whom I got this odd surname.

At the Zagreb station, we said goodbye to each other and I had a feeling we would never meet again, despite of our promises to keep in touch through Facebook and meet sometime, somewhere.

I was so anxious to get to Korenica, the city of the famous Plitvice Lakes, that I missed visiting the capital of the country. I just jumped into the next bus.

When I got there, I instantly felt that I had chosen the ideal place to chill out and take a break. The city was tiny and charming, surrounded by fragrant pine trees.

As I walked into the hostel, I could smell the scent not only of the pine trees, but also of fresh adventure. I felt as a true backpacker in the middle of nowhere. It was the first time during my trip that I felt really far away from home, in a good way.

I went to bed early that night, since I was going to spend the next day visiting the Lakes. But reality much exceeded my wildest expectations. Next morning, as I wandered through the wood plank-covered paths of the park, sighting dozens of misty placid waterfalls, I was overwhelmed by the enchantment of a place that defies description. All those lakes that mirrored the hilled forests, the lace-thin cascades, produced a psychedelic type effect on my mind.

I got back to the hostel tired but thrilled. I’ve overheard a group asking for directions on how to take the trail to watch the sunset from Mrsinj Grad hills. I joined them without thinking twice.

In one hour, we were already gazing at Korenica and doing an off-the-cuff shared picnic. The coldness of Croatia’s spring season was just enough to bring a comforting relief by drinking some wine and wrapping in a warm blanket.

We turned out to be an adorable group. Tomas, from Argentina, and Andrezza, my fellow citizen from Brazil, were solo travellers like me. Alvaro and Camilo were from Uruguai and had been travelling together for six months. Their captivating friendship made me secretly wish I had travel buddies for the first time in a long while.

The laughs and inspiring conversations about our impressions of the Lakes and other travel adventures were often followed by equally rewarding moments of silence.

The hills were surrounded by an incredible amount of trees in pastel tones, all together as in silent communion. I would find out later that I was seated on the remnants of a fortress wall dated back to the 12th century.

The sun began to fade away without any rush, as it was just enjoying itself. I always thought the sun as a exhibitionist star. I bet it likes to be observed, fully aware of its magnitude. The sun set right behind the valley, as a perfectly rehearsed play.

After sunset, I felt I needed some time alone to listen to the confusing thoughts crossing my mind. I excused myself and found a spot away from my hiking mates. The entire trip was being mind-opening to me, but I wasn’t taking any time to think about it.

Many of my concepts of happiness and plans for the future were changing dramatically. From a Law School student about to graduate, I was becoming a budding travel writer. The problem I faced was that before convincing my family about the wisdom of my unexpected decision, I had to convince myself.

To serious issues, such as money and stability, I would just weigh with the prospect of being able to visit places like the Lakes, not only on vacation time but as part of my professional life. Travel becoming more than a habit, but a mean to feed my restless soul.

I was willing to give it a try. But in order to do that, I would have to move out of my safety zone, not before promising my parents and myself that I was at least going to finish Law School first. In the meantime, quitting my paid internship to blog and enrolling in a Travel Writing Course were just my first steps towards this new exciting journey.

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Finding lost Gratitude in Kanazawa, Japan

In February, I received my first acceptance to graduate school. In March, I lost my grandfather to cancer. In April, I quit my job. By May, I had moved home, attended my first funeral, and booked a two-month-long trip around the world.

When I was a baby, my grandfather would get me to eat by pretending the spoon was an airplane and I was the airport – “Plane arriving at London Heathrow! Is this Charles de Gaulle? Here we are! Plane coming in for Tokyo, open up!”

July began and I landed in Tokyo’s airport for the first time, fulfilling a decades-long dream. Japan was shiny and new in a way that spoke of rebirth and rejuvenation. It was also ancient and rooted in traditions that reminded me of home, reminded me of the myths my grandfather told me, of the calligraphy pens and Basho’s poems in my father’s study.

Japan came at the end of one journey and heralded the start of another. I was no longer losing myself in Parisian streets or Irish hillsides; I was finding myself in Kyoto’s gated shrines, in the udon I slurped greedily in Tokyo.

Yet it was in a sudden moment of peace in the mid-size city of Kanazawa that I relearned the grace of travel and the perspective it offers.

I remember not knowing what to expect; our time in Kanazawa was brief and tacked on to a much larger Tokyo and Kyoto itinerary. We stumbled upon the garden in the same way we’d stumbled into Kanazawa itself, and it ended up being the crowning moment of two months.

We entered behind three young women in bright pink yukata, their sandals clacking on the stone path. We followed the curve of the small walkway, passing other visitors and small shops until suddenly, we were completely alone in a still landscape, facing out towards a mirror-like lake. The world hushed, receding away until the smooth rush of a nearby stream over pebbles was the only sound.

I sank into that natural silence. With my eyes closed, the touch of cool moss on my fingertips in the summer heat felt overwhelmingly beautiful. For once, the internal noise of all the stress, anxiety, and worries brought on by my year of changes quieted. For the first time in months, I felt wholly a part of myself, present in that one moment.

When I close my eyes today and think of peace, I am back in that simple garden. I am at the top of Jojakkoji Temple and looking out at mountainous Arashiyama in the heart of a Kyoto summer, sweaty and victorious. I am wide-eyed and heart-stopped before the beauty of Kawagoe shrine in a sudden, gentle rain.

After a year of life changes, Japan was the final turn, the one that made all the rest somehow settle into place. I have always felt thankful for travel, but this trip made my gratitude stretch far deeper: travel has allowed me to rediscover peace in myself.

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The spark that set the fire in South Africa

At the beginning, it was a wild dream. South Africa revealed to me at first through the accounts of travellers or adventure novels I would read late into the night. It seemed a mystic land, a place like no other and, at that time for me, completely out of reach. I was not yet a traveller. But the day I knew I could become one, I booked a ticket to South Africa.

Maybe I was opening my eyes for the first time to such vastness. Maybe I was seeing so many colours in one place for the first time too. It was all overwhelmingly new. But at the end of the day, the possibility of travel and the self-discovery experience aside, it was South Africa that brought a change in me. It was this country that made my mind alert with curiosity, that transformed my vision and understanding of the word, that made me rich with awareness of earthly beauties I had previously no knowledge of.

I stepped in shyly into South Africa but I started to take on the world boldly right after. This land of contrast which provocatively hosts richness and absolute poverty at a close distance, which takes you to the peaks of majestic mountains from the mild waters of the Indian Ocean in one day, where I saw wild animals running free, this place has broadened my scope like nothing before.

Some aspects hurt, but with the pain came realization and maturity. Never before had I seen shanty towns stretching for a longer distance than it should be humanly conceivable. Never before had I seen women carrying heavy loads on their heads and shoulders with such natural balance and grace. Never before had I seen barefooted orphans smiling so endearingly, knowing and having pretty much nothing. I learned “nothing” had a real meaning. South Africa made me cry and made me grow strong. It not only showed me beauty, but also the fragility of things. It made me understand how people suffer in other countries and how they deal with it. It shook all my senses and asked me to ponder on how spoilt for choice we are in the western world and how little we give and invest in things that truly matter. How much we take everything for granted. South Africa was a great, tough but honest teacher and the human experiences are as hard to wipe from my soul as words written with indelible marker.

Seeing animals in the wild is one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had access to. And by seeing I mean observing, not touching, not interfering. Being absorbed into their overwhelming presence is privilege enough. The smell of the wilderness is purely exhilarating and one of the greatest senses of adventure and freedoms one can have access to in this life. Waking up to the view of a giraffe or the sight of a baby elephant –these are special, unique moments that can never be forgotten. South Africa gathered all these wonderful creatures for me and gently showed me how fragile they were, how much protection and care they needed and made me appreciate every millisecond I spent in their company.

South Africa is difficult to pin down in only few words. I have travelled there three times and discovered a wealth of different treasures every single time. This country made me into a story teller and a blogger because I came back with the firm conviction that people were missing out if they didn’t travel there. I must have fallen in love with all its offerings and struggles and I wanted to share them and keep them alive for my at the same time. Because I am convinced I have found one of the best pieces of land there is for a traveller to explore.

Maybe it’s just me but I have heard the very distinctive voice of South Africa. Possibly all 11 of them calling at me all at once, blended together, different yet similar, past and present. Maybe I have been lured by its potential and it made me sing. It could have been the wine, the waves of the Ocean glimmering in the sunset, Lion’s Head, who knows? The fact is, this country has a uniqueness that is a source of bottomless inspiration. Some call it Paradise. I call it South Africa – a place to discover over and over again.

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